Matt Hamilton’s road to journalism’s top prize was long and winding, taking him from Brandywine Hundred, through Boston, halfway around the world, and finally to the West Coast. Along the way, he was influenced by those who taught him at St. Mary Magdalen and Salesianum schools.
Hamilton and two colleagues at the Los Angeles Times – Harriet Ryan and Paul Pringle – won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for investigative writing for their series of reports on a gynecologist at the University of Southern California who continued working for more than a quarter century while complaints of sexual abuse accumulated. The trio’s first article appeared a year ago in the paper, and before 2018 was done, they had published nine more.
The revelations about Dr. George Tyndall contributed to the resignation of the university president and a legal settlement that cost USC $215 million. The fund will resolve a federal class-action lawsuit filed by Tyndall’s accusers and is available to any female student he treated.
Hamilton, who turned 32 in early May, ended up in Los Angeles to pursue a master’s degree in journalism at Southern California, but he didn’t feel awkward writing about his alma mater. The university is much larger than just one story, he said, and exposing the misdeeds of the gynecologist was a public service. He said he was with Ryan and Pringle when the Pulitzer winners were announced.
“Completely unexpected, and it was overwhelming and a huge honor at the same time,” he said. “I don’t do this for the awards, and quite frankly, I thought we were a longshot. I never considered this a possibility.”
He said the award was “a huge validation” for journalism that is fair but tough, and is rooted in the community. Even in an era of smaller news staffs, journalism that matters is still possible.
“The L.A. Times has changed, even in the five years I worked there. Its footprint nationally and internationally has been reduced through staff cuts. But it’s still an extremely large newsroom that covers Los Angeles and the region. That’s ultimately what readers here want,” he said.
Roots in Delaware
Hamilton’s path to the Times began in suburban Wilmington, down the street from St. Mary Magdalen School, which he attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. One of his teachers there was Kathleen Connor, who was the moderator of the Model UN Club. Connor had the students reading The Economist in seventh grade, and it helped Hamilton keep up with current events. He has fond memories of his time at the school.
“The great thing about St. Mary Magdalen is … it was a very all-inclusive experience. My parents were involved, and my friends’ parents were involved. School was home, and home was school. It was such a great environment to grow up in,” he said.
Connor, now an assistant principal at the Charter School of New Castle, remembered Hamilton’s enthusiasm.
“If he was interested in something he was ‘all in.,” Connor recalled. “Matt was interested in the world and politics. During the election of 2000 he had some very firmly held convictions, and we engaged in some sparring as I did not hold some of the same views he supported!”
Connor said Hamilton wrote her a letter after she had moved on to become principal at St. Paul School in Wilmington.
“In it he eloquently thanked me for my role in his education. As you can imagine, I was delighted, and very touched, to receive that letter. It’s not every day that teachers hear from their now-adult former students,” she said.
From St. Mary Magdalen, Hamilton made the short trip to Salesianum, from which he graduated in 2005. There was never really a question of which high school he would attend.
“My older brother went there, and my younger brother did as well. I think in many ways it was a no-brainer. I really didn’t entertain the idea of going to another school. I liked the work-hard, play-hard mentality,” he recalled. “It was rigorous, but there was a broader concern for the whole person.”
At Salesianum, he ran cross country – “certainly not anywhere near the top of the pack” – and was active in campus ministry. He named two members of the Salesianum community who had a particular influence: Oblate Father John Fisher, who was the principal until 2004 and also taught Latin, and English teacher Chuck Selvaggio, who changed how Hamilton looked at writing.
“It’s been a moment to be very grateful for people like that,” Hamilton said.
At Boston College, Hamilton did not necessarily see himself as a future journalist. He majored in theology at the Jesuit school, with a focus on bioethics and an interest in liberation theology.
“What I loved about the theology program at BC is that it was very in-depth scholarship, but it still applied in the world. The people who work in theology at BC are very engaged in the world,” he said.
About that halfway-around-the-world part? After graduating, he traveled to Amman, Jordan, where he lived with Jesuit volunteers for a bit before getting a job as a magazine editor in a Jordanian publishing house. That experience, he said, made him want to do more hard-news reporting. He was living back in north Wilmington and working at a law firm in Philadelphia when he began applying to journalism programs. He ended up with a scholarship to USC.
“One of my first classes was taught by an L.A. Times reporter. He was just instrumental in crime and court reporting in Los Angeles. I ended up getting an internship at the L.A. Times after my first year,” he said.
In 2013, a spot opened up on the staff, and Hamilton was a night reporter on the metro beat. That, he said, changed his life dramatically. He was often the only person in the newsroom, so if something happened, he was the one who had to get the job done. He did that for about three years before moving up the ladder at the paper.
He’s been there for a lot of breaking news, including the San Bernardino fires in 2017. That led to an opportunity to join the team looking at the University of Southern California, a mix of younger and more veteran reporters. Before the Tyndall story broke, they wrote about the director of the university’s medical school, who was addicted to hard drugs and often partied with addicts and prostitutes.
Since receiving the news about the Pulitzer, Hamilton has looked back at the series of events that led him to Los Angeles, the Times and the award.
“It’s been difficult for me, but it’s also been incredibly rewarding. I’ve been very lucky to have these opportunities,” he said.
He likes to read and travel, and running is another way he gets away from the stress of his job. He is back on the East Coast a few times a year to see his family and will return this summer for a wedding, although he said he has grown to love Los Angeles.
There is one more trip east on the schedule. It is at the end of this month, to New York City. That is the home of Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzers.