Art Cullen didn’t want to sound cocky or overconfident, but he had a hunch – the classic gut hunch of a good reporter – that he would win a Pulitzer Prize this year.
The 1980 St. Thomas journalism alumnus and editor of the Storm Lake Times, a twice-a-week newspaper in northwestern Iowa, sat in his newsroom on April 10 and watched a livestream telecast of the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes announcement.
“I felt I was going to win,” he said. “I just knew I had a winner. There were 21 categories, and editorial writing was No. 18 to be announced. My heart was just about coming out of my chest. But the closer we got, the more confident I was.”
And then the announcement came: Gerald Arthur Cullen of the Storm Lake Times, circulation 3,000, won the Pulitzer Prize – the highest honor in American newspaper journalism – for editorial writing:
“For editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”
Cullen exploded at the news. “We won! We won!” he exclaimed, with a colorful cuss word tossed in. His brother John, founder and publisher of the newspaper, “sits about 5 feet away from me, and we gave each other a big hug. It was so cool.”
The news reverberated around the country as newspapers with far larger circulations tried to define the iconoclastic and “sarcastic” editor described by one writer as having “Mark Twain’s hair and Sam Elliott’s eyebrows.” A sampling of headlines:
- The Poynter Institute, a school for journalism: “Tiny, family-run newspaper wins Pulitzer Prize for taking on big business.”
- New York Times: “Iowa town’s editor wins Pulitzer Prize for taking on farm groups.”
- Los Angeles Times: “In a small Iowa town, a Pulitzer-winning editor defends immigrants and tries to bring a community together."
The winning entry was a 2016 series of 10 editorials. They accused drainage districts in three countries of funneling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River and said agricultural groups secretly funded the counties’ legal defense against a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works. The result, Cullen wrote, was that Iowa “has the dirtiest surface water in America.”
Several days after the Pulitzer announcement, Cullen took time to take a call from his collegiate alma mater and talk about what he said had been a crazy week. “I’m exhausted,” he said. “But it sure has been fun.”
Cullen joins Jeremy Olson '95 as the second St. Thomas graduate to win a Pulitzer Prize. Olson won in 2013 with the Star Tribune for his contributions to reporting about an increase in infant deaths at poorly regulated in-home daycare centers.
Cullen never expected to become a journalist. The youngest of six children, born and raised in Storm Lake, he told his mother he intended to go to the University of Iowa. “The hell you are,” he recalled her saying. “You’re going to St. Thomas.”
His mom had gone to the College of St. Catherine and had harbored wishes that at least one of her children would go to St. Catherine or St. Thomas. That didn’t happen with the first five, so when it came time for No. 6 to go to college, St. Thomas was it.
He enrolled in 1975 and intended to major in music, “but it was explained to me that I couldn’t play the piano.” He considered theater and then business, but gave up the latter when he flunked out of an 8 a.m. accounting class.
His next choice: journalism. It took him more than four years to earn his degree, and he gave credit to several professors. His best courses were Persuasion in Writing, taught by Father James Whalen, and what he called the required “philosophy sequence” of Logic (Dr. Harry Austin) and Ethics (Dr. Fred Flynn). His best professor? Dr. Lon Otto of English.
“Lon taught me how to write,” Cullen said. “I took a creative writing class from him and it opened up the world to me.”
He wrote briefly for The Aquin, the student newspaper. One of his stories was about how the college’s associate housing director alleged he was fired because he was gay. Cullen was proud of the story – and that The Aquin was willing to publish it.
After graduation, he returned to Iowa to take photos and write for the Algona Upper Des Moines and Kossuth County Advance, where his brother (John) was editor. His first stories were for a special 96-page section on the town’s 125th anniversary, and on the night the presses ran, Algona was hit by a tornado “that destroyed half the town. It was my baptism by fire,” he said, “and we covered the hell out of it.”
Once he became a professional journalist, Cullen changed his byline. Known as "Jerry" in college, he switched to his middle name. “It was a better byline,” he said. “Jerry” reminded him of comedian Jerry Lewis, and “Art” brought memories of columnist Art Buchwald.
After seven years, Cullen moved to Ames, Iowa, and served as managing editor of the Ames Tribune for three years. He spent a year at the Mason City Globe Gazette before he took a call from his brother that he was starting a paper in their hometown. They joined forces in 1990 and since have been together in Storm Lake.
The newspaper is truly a family affair. Cullen’s wife, Dolores, is a feature writer and photographer and his son Tom is a writer. All four of the couple’s children have worked one time or another at the Times, and Cullen gives credit to Tom’s stories about agricultural runoff problems for providing the grist that led to the Pulitzer editorials.
“Tom deserves the Pulitzer as much as I do,” Cullen said. “His name should be on it too.”
Cullen expects the Pulitzer excitement to die down soon, and then he can get back to the daily grind of editing his newspaper. He expects to take a larger role in management as his brother nears retirement but expects to be around for a while. He will turn 60 on May 10.
“Look us up,” he said. “We’ll be here.”
Gene McGivern, sports information director at St. Thomas, worked with Cullen 30 years ago at the Ames Tribune and has stayed in touch with him. McGivern wrote about his former colleague in Gene’s Blog in TommieSports.com.