Sports journalism scholarship celebrates Mulhern’s legacy

The sun has set on this late fall evening as Tom Mulhern (B.A.’80, Journalism) drives down the interstate through rural Illinois, on his way to yet another University of Wisconsin football game.

The veteran Wisconsin State Journal reporter pulls out his cell phone to check in with his wife, Barb. His task is one no husband would ever crave — he’s making sure Barb, who is battling colon cancer, has taken her medications. But if Tom is struggling, he doesn’t show it. He’s firm, yet caring as he repeats himself and recites the names of each drug.

The next day, Mulhern shows that same composed but compassionate nature while leading the newspaper’s coverage of the Badgers’ blowout win over the Indiana Hoosiers in rainy Bloomington, Ind. He helps a young colleague settle on story themes, shares quotes with another co-worker and churns out several articles of his own, each filled with the sort of detailed analysis readers have come to expect of him.

A few hours later, he’s back on the road toward Madison, where he’ll do more interviews and write yet another story chronicling the Badgers’ season. In the midst of personal tragedy, Tom is a rock — producing stellar work, caring for his wife and inspiring those around him.

Some things will never change.

* * *

More than five years after his wife’s death, Tom Mulhern received a horrific diagnosis of his own: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an unfailingly fatal brain disorder that affects roughly one out of every million people a year worldwide. And yet, in the months before his death (Oct. 3, 2014, at the age of 56), Mulhern’s positive, grateful attitude astounded his friends, family and colleagues.

To honor Mulhern’s memory and celebrate his talent and commitment to his profession — he earned Wisconsin Sportswriter of the Year honors from the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association on three occasions — former co-worker and close friend Jason Wilde (B.A.’94, Journalism) created the Tom Mulhern Scholarship for Sports Journalism at UW-Madison.

To donate to the Tom Mulhern Scholarship for Sports Journalism, visit the UW Foundation website.

The response has been overwhelming, says Hemant Shah, professor and director of the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC). The fund has already received more than $55,000 from a wide swath of donors — from fellow journalists across the state, to newspaper companies, to readers who simply appreciated Mulhern’s work and were touched by his story.

“I think people recognized what an incredible journalist he was — not just a sportswriter, but an incredible journalist,” says Shah, who had never met Mulhern but had often read his work in the State Journal. “And I think that’s what really has brought people out of the woodwork.”

Scott Memmel, a fourth-year journalism student from Brookfield, Wis., received the first Mulhern scholarship — one the SJMC plans to offer annually — at the Center for Journalism Ethics’ annual conference April 10. The conference’s topic was, appropriately, journalism ethics and sports.

“It’s truly an honor to win an award in the name of a man that, unfortunately, I never met but have heard so much about as being a journalist with a lot of integrity, but also a human being with a lot of integrity,” Memmel said in accepting the award. “I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity.”

Mulhern, who worked as a reporter for a variety of publications for 30-plus years, joined the State Journal, his hometown paper, in 1998. A year later, he landed the job he had dreamed of as a kid growing up on Madison’s east side: UW football beat writer. He thrived under the challenge of writing and reporting on the city’s most high-profile sports team day after day.

“He did that job tirelessly, with such fairness and thoroughness and humility that the people he covered truly respected him,” says State Journal sports editor Greg Sprout (B.A.’85, Journalism), who hired Mulhern. “I think that’s a great legacy and a great example for young journalists.”

Mulhern was certainly an example to Wilde, who first met him while covering the Packers for the State Journal. Mulhern wrote for the Appleton Post-Crescent at the time, but he was still willing to lend advice to a young reporter from another paper.

“I think the important thing to note is that we didn’t work together,” says Wilde, who now covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. “He worked for a competing paper, but he was always so good to me.”

Their friendship grew closer when Mulhern — “Mully” to his media colleagues — returned to Madison. They became workout partners, and between racquetball games (Mulhern never lost) and StairMaster sessions, they’d talk more about life than work. When Wilde and his wife welcomed their second daughter, he asked Mulhern to be her godfather.

Faced with the finality of his friend’s diagnosis, Wilde wanted to “find a way to make his memory endure.” A scholarship at UW-Madison, the place where Mulhern’s journalism career had started as a student writing for The Daily Cardinal, seemed like a logical fit.

“He really is the kind of journalist that I think kids should be emulating, because it was never about him. It was always about the story,” Wilde says.

Shah says the outpouring of support shows the extent to which Mulhern’s work “reached into the reading culture of Wisconsin.”

“It’s a sports-crazy state, but here’s a guy who, even with all the sports writing in the state, his voice apparently cut through everything and people really respected his writing and enjoyed it,” he says. “That’s what it’s saying to me, that he was a really important figure in Wisconsin sports journalism.”

And he’ll remain one, through a scholarship that will support young sports journalists at UW-Madison for years to come.

“I really hope every student who receives this scholarship realizes that Tom’s entire body of work was built on a foundation of integrity,” says Assistant Professor Katy Culver, the associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics.

— Tom Ziemer