Matthew R. Tullis, assistant professor of English, co-director of Digital Journalism and long-time mentor of The Mirror, passed away suddenly on Sept. 23, 2022. Tullis leaves behind his wife Alyssa and two children, Emery and Lily. He was 46 years old.
When Tullis joined the Fairfield University community in August of 2016 after previously working at Ashland University in Ohio, he came ready, jumping in to help journalism at the university grow. This, in turn, meant taking the helm of a 45-year-old student publication, The Fairfield Mirror.
In true Jesuit University form, The Mirror was always run by students with a variety of different academic backgrounds. The Editor-in-Chief would sometimes have an English major, sometimes Communication and oftentimes, many of the staff members would have no formal journalism experience.
Tullis took this in stride, embracing the paper’s educational diversity. In his mentorship of The Mirror, he made an effort not just to critique each issue, but to make each critique a lesson.
Before becoming an academic, Tullis worked as a journalist for The Columbus Dispatch and contributed to the Daily Beast and other publications. He understood the tradition of a newsroom, but always had a forward-thinking approach to media.
He knew digital journalism was the future and constantly pushed The Mirror to expand into new forms.
Tullis truly believed in journalism and that student journalists were the future.
Though first-year students may have stumbled across the Mirror’s office by happenstance, it took just one class or Mirror critique with Tullis to feel the rush. Tullis believed it was the duty of journalists to be the true voice for their community.
That was a task he made students feel honored to take on.
The Impact Matt Tullis Had on the Mirror
“The Mirror staff must have many fond memories of him, including his ‘whatever-it-takes’ attitude,” Professor Tommy Xie, associate professor of English and co-advisor of The Mirror said in a letter to the Mirror staff announcing Tullis’ passing.
He continued, “Once he half-jokingly said to me that he made the staff sit through an hour-long Zoom workshop on layout taught by a renowned newspaper designer.”
He recounts that Tullis said, “I know it’s not as fun as doing Instagram, but the layout of the next issue was so much better!”
Catherine Santangelo ‘21, Editor-in-Chief Emerita, said that even though her EIC tenure was during Tullis’ off-year from advising, he was always there to support her and her staff members.
“He was a good man who was extremely dedicated to his work, his colleagues and his students.” Santangelo adds, “He will be missed.”
Sabina Dirienzo ’19, Chief Copy Editor Emerita, said Tullis pushed The Mirror to be better first and foremost.
“It wasn’t enough to be mediocre,” Dirienzo said. “He wanted us to be good.”
She continued, “Every critique, he gave us actionable advice that we used to become better, and he loved the Mirror just as much as the students who poured so much time into it.”
Dirienzo adds that while some professors would have complained about the amount of work that went into advising for The Mirror, Tullis would never.
“We always knew that Matt had our backs, even and especially when it felt like Fairfield itself didn’t, or like the newspaper itself was an overwhelming thing,” she said. “I know that his advocacy and coaching made me a better writer and a better reader-of-news, and I use the skills he taught us at The Mirror every day.”
Alexandra Thimble ‘20, Editor-in-Chief Emerita, agreed with Dirienzo on Tullis’ advocacy for The Mirror.
“What I remember most about him…was the fierceness of his allyship,” she said. “He wasn’t there to make a weekly appearance at critique on Thursdays and then disappear.”
She continues that Tullis advocated for the paper in meetings with administrators and helped The Mirror strategize the best way to get stories written.
“His loyalty was with us,” she shares. “And he made it profoundly clear 100% of the time.”
She adds, “It’s such a loss for future generations of Mirror staff to not have that, and for future students to lose out on the kind of advocacy he demonstrated.”
Former student Ali Phaneuf ‘19, who was the first Editor-in-Chief Tullis advised, recounts the constant support she received from him.
“Whether it was a phone call at 10 p.m. when the staff office computers crashed, or 10 a.m. when I called him sobbing that I was getting backlash on my recent article, he never let me go to voicemail,” she said.
She added that after she received backlash for one of the articles she wrote outside of The Mirror, she called Tullis and he said, “When people start talking about your articles, that’s when you know you’ve written something amazing” and proceeded to stay on the phone with her.
“His critiques were ruthless…but his praise was immeasurable” she continued, “He’d do anything for his Mirror staff.”
Julia Lanzillotta ‘22, Executive Editor and Sports Editor Emerita recounted Tullis’ honesty and love for sports journalism.
She said that though Tullis often provided detailed criticism to the sport’s section, or as Lanzillotta put it, “[ripped] it to shreds,” his comments came from a “genuine love for the section.”
“I will truly miss him,” she adds. “I know that Matt’s legacy and passion for student creation will continue on through the new sports media program. I am very lucky to have learned from the best.”
Remembering Tullis’ Impact on the Fairfield Community
After The Mirror posted a form for those who knew Tullis to share stories, sentiments or memories they shared with him, the response was overwhelming.
Junior Bianca Sasso recounts that during her first class with Tullis, she had to leave and go collect herself after he shared his experience with childhood Leukemia. Tullis was diagnosed at 15-years-old and would later write, “Running With Ghosts: A Memoir of Surviving Childhood Cancer” discussing his battle.
“My eyes began to swell and I had to excuse myself from class to gather myself,” she said, adding that this was due to her mother’s own battle with the disease.
“This was something I never told Matt, but I formed a connection with him in my heart because of it. I saw the same tenacity and passion for life that my Mother had displayed in Matt and it meant the world to me.” Sasso continues, “My family is blessed enough to still have my Mother with us, and I will forever wish that life was not so cruel as to not afford the Tullis family the same blessing.”
Marc Stacey ‘21, who currently works in Fairfield University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, took five classes with Tullis.
“He was such a great professor and an even better man,” Stacey recounts. “He cared so much for the student body and the student experience in the classroom.”
Stacey remembers that after he began struggling with the editing for his podcasting class, Tullis took the time to FaceTime Stacey and walk him through the process step by step.
“Never have I met a professor who went to that length to help a student,” Stacey added.
Former student Jessica Colloca ‘21 recounts the same level of student support and dedication.
“I’ll never forget walking out of his office after speaking with him about a new story I was working on,” she said. “I was being a bit hard on myself about the assignment and Matt spent way too much of his time talking me out of scrapping it altogether.”
Continuing that later that night, Tullis emailed her a story from a writer that reminded him of her work. The hope was that it would inspire her to keep working and keep writing.
“He truly cared about us. His praise meant the world to me. He will be missed by so many,” Colloca adds.
Theresa Bravo ‘19 remembers the time in her class with Tullis when they watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (2018), the documentary on the life and legacy of Fred Rogers.
“At the end of the documentary,” Bravo recounts, “We see Fred’s Lifetime Achievement Award speech where he talks about everyone having people in their lives who love us into being, people who shape us into who we are today. I know Matt was that for so many of us.”
“Matt was loved by his students and colleagues and was a good friend to many of us,” President Marc Nemec Ph.D. said in his email to the community announcing his passing.
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Richard Greenwald, Ph.D. added that Tullis was a dedicated teacher, colleague and friend to many at Fairfield.
He added that Tullis’ face “lit up when talking about his kids and wife — beaming with pride and lit by love.”
“There is [a] Matt-sized hole in the college and the University that can never be filled,” Greenwald said. “We will cherish his memory and we extend our love and support to his family and friends.”
Associate Professor of Communication Adam Rugg worked closely with Tullis, as the two lead the digital sports media major and minor, states, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this weekend about what I’ll miss most about Matt and what made him who he was.”
“If there is one thing I took for granted with Matt, it was his positivity and good-natured personality,” Rugg says.
He adds, “I spent a lot of time with him and I can’t think of one time where he didn’t treat me with warmth and friendship. Every time I saw him, even when he was upset, stressed out or frustrated by something, he welcomed me with a smile and an openness that immediately comforted me. “
Reflecting on what their friendship meant, Rugg shares, “…our friendship was a space where I was always at ease and we always had a good time. It sounds like a simple thing, to simply be nice to your friend every time you see them, but it’s quite rare in people in my experience.”
“While there are plenty of exceptional qualities about Matt and tremendous stories to share, his steady kindness and friendliness should not go unnoticed,” Rugg concludes.
“Running with Ghosts”
In his email to the Mirror staff announcing Tullis’ passing, Professor Tommy Xie discussed Tullis’ book “Running With Ghosts: A Memoir of Surviving Childhood Cancer.”
In it, Tullis recounts his fight with leukemia after he was diagnosed at 15 and his attempts to seek out those connections he made in the hospital, later in life.
“Death was not something new to him,” Xie said, recounting that many of the young friends Tullis made also fighting childhood cancer, were never able to go home.
In the trailer for his book, Tullis discusses how he felt every time he put his sneakers on as an adult. “When I lace up my shoes to go for a run, I lace up the shoes of ghosts from a lifetime ago,” he reads.
He continues that every time he runs he’s reminded of these “ghosts”, the people he knew while fighting cancer, and is transported back to a time when they all faced an “unknown future.”
He recounts a race he ran in the shadow of the hospital he received treatment in as a child.
“…They pushed me forward toward a finish line that sat in the shadow of Akron Children’s Hospital where we all came together…” he recounts, “Where I was saved, and they were not.”
“He always saw his later years as something he ‘stole’ from Death” Xie added, “…therefore [he] lived every day as if it were his last.”
Associate Professor of Communication Maggie Wills Ph.D. always assigned Tullis’ book to her students. After they finished, she’d bring Tullis in and have him answer questions.
She recounts one of the last student’s questions to Tullis, “What has this journey taught you about life?”
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that life can end at any moment,” Tullis said, “So I want to spend the time I have on this planet doing the stuff that I love more than anything else, and I’ve spent my post-cancer years always prioritizing that stuff above all else.”
He continued, “I love running, and so I do a lot of it. I love reading, and so I read a lot. I love writing … I love hanging out with my wife and kids … and I love working with college students. So those are the things I’ve prioritized.”
Visitation services are set to take place this Saturday, Oct. 1 at Honan Funeral Home in Newtown, Conn. from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
A Go Fund Me has also been set up to help his family during this time: https://www.gofundme.com/f/the-tullis-family?qid=5d7fdff8a6e72047d0350a9769f7cc25
Grief services are available through Father Paul Rourke, Father Keith Maczkiewicz and Father Denis Donoghue in Campus Ministry. Faculty and staff may also contact Human Resources, and students may contact Counseling Services.