Four snapshots from Tom Matlack’s life in transition show a man at his most successful, most destructive, most vulnerable—and, finally, most at peace.
The board of the Providence Journal Company assembled on Monday, September 3, 1996, in a private room at the Four Seasons in Boston. Steve, the chairman, CEO and publisher, was paranoid about leaks. None of them knew what was coming; the short notice and abnormal location had everyone on edge.
After some introductory remarks, Steve turned the meeting over to me. I reported how we had traveled to Dallas to talk to A.H. Belo about a potential merger. Steve had made it clear we weren’t interested at anything less than double our IPO price, and their CEO balked, bringing the discussion to a quick close.
I took a momentary breath of air, looking around the room. My eyes passed over the older, Yankee-looking men, sporting an assortment of horn-rimmed glasses and bowties. The distinguished group was stone faced, silently waiting to hear what I was going to say next, anticipating where I might be headed.
Fran “Monty” Burnham, daughter of the longest-serving CEO and chairman of the board, was the individual with arguably the closest ties to the historic owners of the business—and she was looking directly at me. The scowl on her face said, You son of a bitch! After all that I have done for you, how could you have done this to our family, to our cherished business, to our community? You’re threatening to single-handedly tear down everything my family spent centuries building up!
I looked down at my script, took a deep breath, and pressed on, reporting how the executive committee of the Board had met on August 28 and concluded that despite the apparent gap in valuation, a more detailed discussion was warranted. I explained that I had been asked to meet with the Belo CFO in a neutral location to analyze the potential combination. I caught a plane that night to Atlanta, where over the next 24 hours I built the best case I could, brick by brick, for the valuation Steve had demanded. I was asked to leave the room at the end of my exhaustive discussion with my counterpart so he could report back to his CEO. After an hour, he called me in and said that we had a deal.
Paul Maeder, a Boston venture capitalist and recent addition to the board, rose to give me a standing ovation—but it only seemed to darken the mood of the others. Monty was now positively distraught, as were the men around her. Not only did the deal appear dead, but my meteoric career seemed to have just taken a huge turn for the worse. Steve was stammering to try to keep the conversation going, explaining why this all made sense, thanking me for my service.
When Monty sensed the discussion had moved to the other end of the room, I noticed her hand slip under the table as she looked the other way. I had a clear view as she reached into her handbag. What the hell was she doing? Under the table appeared a small black calculator. The chair of the executive committee was pleading, “With special assets like the Journal’s, there is often a single moment when a unique opportunity arises.” Monty punched the keys on that calculator under the table. I knew exactly what she was doing: She was figuring out the value of what I had negotiated to her personally.
At that moment, I knew the die had been cast. An era was over. It would take three more weeks of negotiating: difficult, all-night, back-and-forth talks in which I would play a subordinate role. But we would sell. We would line everyone up in the company auditorium, beaming in locations from around the country through a satellite truck parked in front of our historic building. Steve would talk about how Belo was the mirror image of our own company.
I would walk through the financial details of the $2 billion transaction, trying not to look into the eyes of our employees who would always remember me as the kid who sold out. Our always colorful mayor, Buddy Cianci, would be quoted as saying, “What upsets me is that they banged me for 18 years and now, just when they started to be nice to me, they sell the joint.”
But I knew at that moment that the board would go along. We’d have a contentious final shareholder meeting with blunt accusations of mismanagement and self-dealing. The most critical family members would take out a full-page ad in the paper, pleading for others to vote against the proposed transaction. But I knew, watching Monty and her calculator, that when the merger was put to a final vote, the motion would pass. Soon it would be over.
Hank’s was a dank bar on a side street near the office, down an alley and up a flight of stairs. Inside they served one of the worst happy-hour buffets I’ve ever seen: sliced baloney and American cheese. But the beer was cheap; the joint fit perfectly into our down-and-out literary mindset. I loved the image of Dylan Thomas showing up at the White Horse Tavern in the Village and drinking himself to death at the bar. I thrived on both the chemical lift of being drunk and the high of feeling like I was living on the edge, willing to find meaning in poetic death—both my own and those of my heroes.
My brother Will sometimes joined us after work. On one occasion, he came up the stairs at Hank’s just after 5 on a Friday afternoon to see me in the corner of the bar with my buddies, drinks lined up and a pack of cigarettes in front of me. I had a lit Marlboro in my fingers and was gesticulating madly, making an important point.
My brother undoubtedly had figured out that I only smoked once I was very well lubricated. When sober, the habit made me sick. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Will get to the top of the stairs and take one look at me. He turned around and left without so much as a wave. He had seen plenty.
The Regency Plaza was a large 1970s-era apartment building in the Howard Johnson architectural genre. It was three blocks down from my Providence Journal office, overlooking Route 95 and the Italian section of town, Federal Hill. The Regency advertised fully furnished week-to-week rentals. That Monday, after getting thrown out of the house, I called to make an appointment for my lunch hour. When I walked into the rental office, the manager asked what I was interested in.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted.
He nodded with a sympathetic smile. After a moment, he came out from behind his desk. “It’ll get better, buddy,” he said softly as he motioned me out into the hallway.
On the way to the elevator, he pointed out a pool and a tiny weight room, talking about various social events they held in the lounge a couple times a week for residents. It struck me as amazingly pathetic, but I tried to banish the thought, as I was no longer able to take smug prisoners of the mind quite the way I used to.
On the fifth floor, he showed me a furnished studio with plush beige carpeting, which I noticed had a few stains on it. The furniture was plastic, with Formica counter and tabletops. I inspected the pots and pans, the kind you can buy at a discount department store for $99 a set. There was one large, smudged window; the traffic hummed below. I smelled Chinese food, unsure if the odor was next door or embedded in the dirty drapes.
The rental agent told me they could arrange a weekly cleaning service; the dry cleaner, too, picked up on Thursdays. I stared at the bed, queen-sized and tucked into the darkest corner of the one open room. I imagined hiding there, curled up in a ball—a hibernating bear, unaware of the winter outside. I knew I had to take the apartment, but the thought depressed me so thoroughly I told the agent I’d have to think about it. I couldn’t quite admit, on the spot, that my life had been reduced to this.
On a sunny June morning many years later, my 18-month-old son Cole woke me up early to play. I followed him out the back door and into the field overlooking the Atlantic Ocean behind the summer home that my wife, Elena, and I had built on the border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Ospreys circled high and then dove straight down, splashing into the water.
But Cole wasn’t looking out on the waves breaking below us; he was hunting for toads—or, as he called them, “Abooda!” He looked intently at the ground as he marched down the path. When he’d see a toad at last, he’d point emphatically, looking back at me and repeating again and again, “Abooda! Abooda! Abooda!”
I chased the toad into the high grass, trapping it in my cupped hands. I knelt down as Cole thrusted his arms out with great excitement, desperate to see and touch the little creature. I gently transferred the baby toad into Cole’s miniature hands. He recoiled when he felt the moist skin and tiny-clawed feet kicking for freedom. But for a moment he held the toad in his cupped fingers, just long enough to look up at me with a triumphant smile.
Then the toad jumped free.
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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.