Harrison Ullman · 2003
By Tom Davies
Harrison Ullmann wielded words as few other Hoosier journalists ever have. Over his decades in Indianapolis journalism, Ullmann became known for an aggressive, acerbic style that spared few in positions of power.
Ullmann became editor of NUVO Newsweekly, a weekly alternative newspaper in Indianapolis, in 1972- a position he held for seven years.
During that time, NUVO gained notoriety – and many journalism awards – for its coverage on such issues as narcotic roadblocks by Indianapolis police that were later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, the troubles faced by the city’s public schools after decades of busing for desegregation, and the aftermath of a chemical spill that killed millions of fish in the White River.
One story in which Ullmann showed his aggressive style was in NUVO’s coverage of a 1996 brawl in downtown Indianapolis involving several drunken city police officers, even going so far as publishing the department’s entire internal investigation report of the incident. Throughout his time as editor, Ullmann wrote a weekly column – and never apologized for rankling readers.
“When they write back it shows me I’ve made them think, provoked them enough to make them respond,” he said. “I don’t care if they agree with me.”
His work leading NUVO’s editorial department came at a time when the newspaper grew in circulation from 20,000 to 50,000.
NUVO publisher Kevin McKinney said Ullmann was a masterful writer, dedicated to fairness and truth.
“What made him so unusual was his photographic memory coupled with his ability to rapidly absorb information.” McKinney said. “When combined with his flawless logic and acerbic wit, his writing style was captivating.”
Ullmann grew up in Mishawaka, Ind., and graduated from Indiana University.
He had been writing a column for NUVO for a couple of years when McKinney recruited him to become its editor. He previously had been writing a newsletter on Indiana labor issues after spending 10 years as a reporter at The Indianapolis Star and then establishing IUPUI’s news bureau.
He died in 2000 at the age of 64, a short time after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Soon after Ullmann’s death, NUVO published a memorial edition that included dozens of tributes from colleagues and competitors, but also from average readers and the mayors, governors and congressmen that he had spent years writing about.
“He had the journalistic courage to take on the power structure, tell the king he had no clothes, unmask deceitfulness and self-righteousness, and raise important questions about conflicts of interest and unintended consequences of public policies,” former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut said, “Every community needs at least one Harrison Ullmann, preferably more.
Ullmann had been a frequent guest on talk shows hosted by Mike Pence before Pence, a conservative Republican, was elected to Congress in 2000.
Pence said they rarely agreed on politics, but that Ullmann was passionate about learning the truth and willing to question those in power – regardless of their political leanings.
“He seemed to combine that rare quality of professionalism that allows one to do the job of a journalist with integrity while maintaining and developing quality relationships with those he was charged to cover,” Pence said a letter supporting Ullmann’s nomination to the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
“He was, and will always be, for me the very image of a good journalist… large mind, large vocabulary, large reputation and a large heart.” Pence said.
Brian Howey, who was NUVO’s news editor under Ullmann for three years, said his boss pushed the newspaper’s reporters to investigate subjects ignored by the city’s mainstream media and inspired them through his own writing.
“Harrison had an incredible ability to passionately connect with his audience through his columns and stories,” Howey said. “They were anything from touching to hilarious, to scathing. During his last seven years, he became the conscience of Indianapolis as he wrote about education, public policy, politics and culture.”
Said Sheila Kennedy, the former director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, “Right or wrong, Harrison’s voice was a voice Indianapolis desperately needed to hear… His was a voice for the disenfranchised, the dispossess, the disheartened. When he was most annoying, Harrison was most important and necessary.”