Joseph Fahy's remarkable life

Dateline: Fri 26 Dec 2008

This is written by Kevin Corcoran with resource help from Kevin Morgan and Mike Jesse at the Star. As Kevin Corcoran notes, Joe was "the consummate journalist," who also began working on his own obit before his death.

"JOE FAHY was an earnest, thoughtful and soft-spoken newspaperman whose religious faith inspired his passion for giving voice to the poor and powerless in American society. Some of the stories that emerged from his careful reporting won journalism's high honors.

Mr. Fahy was humble and unassuming, yet he was also heroic in his ability to persevere and overcome many of life's challenges. He adored his children, nurtured many friendships and treated people he encountered with uncommon courtesy, respect and empathy. He died Dec. 23, 2008, at Forbes Hospice in Pittsburgh, Pa. He was 54.

A former editor of Mr. Fahy's at The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News tells each semester's corps of aspiring young journalists about his coverage of a woman who was struggling to support herself: "Her job at McDonald's required that she mop up when the restaurant closed," said Nancy Comiskey, an instructor at the Indiana University School of Journalism. "One night, when he knew she would be tired, Joe went over to help her. I won't ever forget that image of the reporter who cared more about the person than 'the source' ... I wish I had told him that."

In a lengthy reporting career that ended at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mr. Fahy covered a range of news beats, including police, local and state governments, social services, ethnic and racial diversity and the fine arts. But Mr. Fahy had an affinity for writing about people living in poverty or with physical, intellectual and emotional disabilities. Besides highlighting issues he cared about in news stories, Mr. Fahy also worked for agencies serving homeless people and people with developmental disabilities in Indianapolis, where he grew up.

Mr. Fahy often told family and friends that no event had affected his life more profoundly than accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior in 1981. He attended Allegheny Center Alliance Church in Pittsburgh and Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Indianapolis. "He attributed all of the success that he had to God's glory," said Char Burkett-Sims, a longtime friend from Greenwood. "There wasn't a decision he made in his life without praying."

Burkett-Sims, who works for Indiana Department of Child Services, frequently interacted with Mr. Fahy when he covered public welfare in Indiana, including reform efforts in the mid-1990s. They found they shared many of the same values, and Ms. Burkett-Sims traveled to Pittsburgh often during Mr. Fahy's final months to serve as his health care representative.

A lifelong non-smoker, Mr. Fahy had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer nearly two years ago. He had continued to run, even as he received treatment for his cancer, putting in several miles a day and completing a half-marathon in August. He was thankful that a painful-but-aggressive course of treatment had allowed him to witness the birth of his first grandchild, Cairon W. Fahy, now 18 months old, of Nanuet, N.Y.

"Things here are great, even miraculously so," Mr. Fahy told a friend in Indiana after his Pittsburgh oncologist had discontinued chemotherapy in March, citing his cancer's remission. "I don't have to tell you how improbable it is that someone diagnosed with inoperable, late-stage lung cancer would be dropped from therapy after a year for that reason. Of course, it is only by the mercy of God that I have recovered, and I'm so grateful to Him for every new day."

Mr. Fahy, or Joseph William Fahy Jr., was born March 15, 1954, in Oldenburg, Ind. He was adopted as an infant by Joseph W. Fahy, a landscape foreman for Indianapolis Public Schools, and Ruth Pedigo Fahy, a homemaker who later worked as an office manager and personnel manager. Mr. Fahy's father died in October 1991 and his mother succumbed in March 2001 to heart failure. By example, Mr. Fahy's parents instilled in him the importance of treating others with mercy and showing them generosity. His parents often gave away what little they had.

Mr. Fahy attended Cathedral Grade School and went on to Cathedral High School, graduating in 1971. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a bachelor's degree in English in 1976. The following year, his first published work, "Thomas Pynchon's V. and Mythology," appeared in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. After college, Mr. Fahy worked as a high school English teacher in southeastern Virginia, where his wife served in the Navy. Mr. Fahy married the former Mary Beth Sprague in 1974. They were divorced in 1983.

Mr. Fahy shared many gifts with his children, including his time and his love of literature. One of Mr. Fahy's two sons, John P. Fahy, 30, served aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins. He said his father would mail him classics such as Moby Dick, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Sound and the Fury. During lengthy phone conversations, they would discuss these and other readings. "He would point out all of the stuff that would go over my head," Mr. Fahy's son recalled. "I learned a lot about writing from that process, and it gave us something to do together even though I was far away."

Mr. Fahy's younger son, John, now a physical therapist at The Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y., and his older son, Joseph Fahy, 33, of Pittsburgh, recall how their father went to extraordinary lengths to maintain a strong presence in their lives after their parents had divorced, often driving hundreds of miles each way in his beat-up Chevy Nova to spend even a day or two with them.

"He would do things like pay the full price to take us to Busch Gardens-Williamsburg for two hours before our afternoon flight," said Mr. Fahy's son, John. "He took us out West once. It was a whirlwind trip. He had it planned out so we'd see something different every day. ... Another time, when I was stuck at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago, he drove up and brought me to Indy for a weekend so I would have a home-cooked meal."

Continuing a family tradition of service, Mr. Fahy's oldest child, Joseph, soon will leave to perform mission work with an after-school program for at-risk middle school students near Baltimore, Md. He said his father has has been a supportive role model. "My Dad was always there for me. He was there to help me through a lot of tough times," Joseph Fahy said. "I told him once that if I could have my choice of dads, I wouldn't have any Dad but him."

Mr. Fahy's sons were with him when he died. Mr. Fahy had asked to be removed from the ventilator helping him breathe Dec. 18 after a few days spent making final phone calls. His death several days later brought an end to a remarkable career in journalism that had an unusual start. He was hired in 1982 as a circulation manager for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Va. Later, he began freelancing for the newspaper and its sister publication, The Ledger-Star, and was hired as a staff writer in 1983 to cover police and the courts in Chesapeake, Va.

In 1984, he began work at The Hartford Courant in Connecticut, where he covered town government. He returned to the Norfolk, Va. newspapers later that year as a fine arts feature writer. The following year, Mr. Fahy moved to the newspapers' Elizabeth City, N.C. bureau, where he covered local, regional and state news. His stories covered a wide range of issues, including government and politics, voting-rights litigation, moonshining and health problems in poultry processing plants.

Four years later, in 1989, Mr. Fahy joined the staff of The Indianapolis News, where he covered crime, state government and medical news. In 1995, after that newspaper merged with its sister publication, The Indianapolis Star, Mr. Fahy covered diversity issues and health care. At The Star, Mr. Fahy gained attention by co-writing a pair of investigative series that uncovered serious problems within Indiana nursing homes. The stories resulted in state policy changes aimed at protecting residents and increasing regulatory oversight of those businesses.

Mr. Fahy was covering the medical beat in 1999 when his news story was the first nationally to disclose information about medical treatment provided to Dr. Jerri Nielsen, a physician who attracted worldwide attention for being stranded at the South Pole with breast cancer. Mr. Fahy disclosed that a specialist at the Indiana University Cancer Center had guided her care for months through e-mail messages and videoconferencing.

Several months later, working with reporter Kevin Corcoran, Mr. Fahy revealed how the state of Indiana had failed to intervene as 108 people with severe medical problems and intellectual disabilities were moved with poor planning and oversight from three skilled-nursing facilities to a privately run group of neighborhood homes. Complaints of poor care quickly arose, and nine residents died during the transfer or within nine months. The resulting news stories,"Painful Lessons," prompted the ouster of the state's top human services official and the demotions of several others. The series, edited by Linda Graham Caleca, won the 2000 George Polk Award for statewide reporting. Irish America magazine later honored both reporters.

"Joe's sense of Irish outrage toward injustice, tempered by his decency and a firm belief in the dignity of those less fortunate, were his greatest assets as a journalist," said Mr. Corcoran, who now works for Lumina Foundation for Education.

Mr. Fahy left journalism that year to become the planning director for a local nonprofit, the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention. He led the research and writing of an acclaimed 10-year plan to end homelessness in Indianapolis.

"He clearly believed in, and carried out, the social justice ministry of the Catholic Church," said Bill Moreau, a partner with Barnes & Thornburg who met Mr. Fahy as a journalist when Mr. Moreau worked for Democrat Evan Bayh in the mid-1980s. Years later, Mr. Moreau and Mr. Fahy became close friends through their work together on the first blueprint for ending homelessness adopted by a larger American city. "We were companions on that journey," Mr. Moreau said. "Joe was one of the most sincere, caring, humane people I have ever had the good fortune to meet."

Mr. Fahy later worked as a writer and media affairs specialist for Noble of Indiana, an Indianapolis nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities, before he returned to journalism with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2004. He had moved to Pennsylvania to be closer to his grown children a few years after the death of his mother, whom Mr. Fahy had cared for in the Broad Ripple bungalow they shared.

In Pittsburgh, Mr. Fahy's news beat was health and medicine, and he focused on health policy, medical research and mental health topics. His final news story before he was diagnosed with a recurrence of his cancer was published Oct. 7. Before cancer overtook him, Mr. Fahy was working on a story chronicling the closing of Mayview State Hospital, a large public mental institution.

"Joe being Joe, his big concern was getting the story done," said Dennis Roddy, a colleague at the Pittsburgh newspaper. "He got me to promise that I'll keep following the patients who leave the hospital to makes sure the state comes through on its pledge to look after them."

Mr. Fahy last visited Indiana in August while reporting for the Pittsburgh paper on appearances by U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama in Evansville and Hillary Rodham Clinton in Indianapolis. The recurrence of his cancer two months later brought together his heartbroken Pittsburgh newsroom as staffers rallied to support him.

Within an hour of Mr. Fahy's death, his paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning executive editor, David Shribman, sought to comfort the staff: "I need not tell you how hard was his fight nor how big was his heart. ... I believe that we all learned something in watching his struggle, in standing with him, in recognizing all that we had even as he was bravely losing all that he had. I never knew anyone who loved his craft more, who took more succor from his colleagues, or anyone for whom it was more instinctive to make gentle the life of this world. I think we are all lucky to have had Joe, and sad beyond words - his tool of art and ours - to have lost him."

Survivors include sons Joseph W. Fahy III, of Pittsburgh, and John P. Fahy, of Nanuet, N.Y.; a daughter, Catherine L. Fahy, 28, of Pittsburgh; a sister,Cecilia A. Bowman of Clayton, Ind.; and a grandson, Cairon W. Fahy, of Nanuet, N.Y.

Visitation will take place from X p.m. to X p.m. (DATE) at Feeney-Hornak Keystone Mortuary, 2126 E. 71st St. A funeral service will be held at X a.m. (DATE) at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, 317 E. 57th St. Interment and a graveside service are scheduled for X a.m. (DATE) at St. Malachy Cemetery, Brownsburg. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to Hillman Cancer Center, 5115 Centre Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15232.

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