So who was Jim Tully?
That question so intrigued Cuyahoga Falls Resident Mark Dawidziak that he and a friend spent 19 years trying to find out. Their work became a book earlier this year.
Tully, they learned, was one of America's brightest literary lights in the 1920s and 1930s. By the time he died in 1947, he was one of Hollywood's most respected writers and a close friend of W.C. Fields and Lon Chaney.
Also, they discovered, he spent six of his formative years in and around Cuyahoga Falls.
In the early 1990s, Dawidziak, then the TV critic of the Akron Beacon-Journal, frequently visited used book stores. That's where he met and became friends with Paul Bauer, the owner of a store in Kent. At one point, a customer asked Bauer for a book by Tully, an author unknown to either him or Dawidziak.
Curiosity piqued, Dawidziak went to the Beacon-Journal morgue, where stories in the paper are filed. There he discovered that Tully had worked at the Beacon and at the Journal, which had been independent papers. "He wasn't a very good reporter and he was fired by both papers," Dawidziak said.
Thoroughly intrigued, Dawidziak found a used copy of one of Tully's books, Shanty Irish, and bought it for $2.50.
"I read it and it just took the top of my head off," said Dawidziak, now the TV critic of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "I couldn't believe anyone wrote like this. There is this hardboiled realism to his writing but he's also got this other side to him, that of a lyrical Irish poet. These two sides are always in dynamic tension."
Tully, the son of an Irish ditch digger, was born in St. Marys, Ohio. After his mother died in 1892, his father sent him to an orphanage. He stayed there six years, then ran away and lived as a hobo. Along the way, he learned the skills needed to make chain link fences.
He got off the road in Kent, where he was hired by chain link fence factories. At the time, it was illegal to serve alcohol in Kent. So Tully and other factory workers quenched their thirst at riverfront bars in Cuyahoga Falls.
Tully wrote 14 books between 1922 and 1942, winning national fame and fortune. Dawidziak said he fell into obscurity in the following decades because he was not around to write more books and he did not have an academic champion "to let people know how great he was." Dawidziak and Bauer set out to become Tully's champions.
"He overcame such long odds to become a writer," Dawidziak said. "But the real impetus for spending 19 years on a book was that the writing was so good that he deserved to be put back on the literary map."
Their quest ultimately led to the special collection of the University of California-Los Angeles. Tully's third wife gave 117 boxes of his papers to UCLA in 1952 and they sat unopened for more than a half century. "These 117 boxes are really the backbone of the book," Dawidziak said.
Dawidziak and Bauer have crisscrossed Ohio to promote the book, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, since the book's publication by Kent State University Press. They will continue promoting the book through the fall. "In September and October, we will go to every library that will have us and every book club that will have us," Dawidziak said.
Copies are available through the publisher and through amazon.com.