Obituary: Michael S. Sweeney

Tuesday, January 18, 2022 - 7:00am

Michael Steven “Mike” Sweeney, emeritus professor of journalism at Ohio University and author of 25 academic and popular books, died on January 15, 2022, at his home in Athens, Ohio,  He was 63.

Mike was a cross between a Renaissance man and, in his own considered opinion, a Labrador retriever.

The Renaissance man was an inevitability, the natural maturation of a boy who collected coins, worked crossword puzzles, loved Impressionist painting, and read everything from The Guinness Book of Records and agate sports type to Sherlock Holmes mysteries and Civil War histories.

The Labrador gene might explain why Mike’s one sporting endeavor in high school required a neon yellow ball and a doubles partner, not to mention why his favorite trivia team name, “I am Smartacus,” sounds like something Astro Jetson might say. Mike’s dog-like enthusiasm, curiosity, loyalty, and determination not only proved invaluable in his career as journalist, historian, author, and educator, but made him a lifelong friend to just about everyone he met.

Mike was born November 6, 1958 in Madison, Wis., to Donnis and Betty Jean (Billings) Sweeney. He was the youngest of four sons, each of whom would top out one inch taller than the last. Like his brothers, Mike received the distinctive Billings nose, the dimpled Sweeney chin, and his high school’s valedictorian award, fulling Betty’s desire for a complete set. In the Sweeney home, hard work and self-reliance were expected and encouraged by Don and Betty’s support and Betty’s all-American cooking. This upbringing instilled confidence and an optimism that would lead Mike to take several “leaps of faith” throughout his life.

Inspired by Watergate and his experiences delivering the Washington Star on the University of Maryland campus during the Vietnam War, Mike zeroed in on a career in journalism while still in junior high. At Lincoln Northeast (NE) High School, he edited the school newspaper. Later, while majoring in journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he worked for the Sports Information Department and took photos for the Nebraska Press Association, in addition to writing and editing for the Daily Nebraskan.

It was also at UN-L, in a freshman English class, that Mike met Carolyn Neal, an advertising and English major. Even at dating, Mike was smart. He picked the last week of spring semester to invite Carolyn to a performance of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” figuring that if the date didn’t go well, at least he wouldn’t be forced to see her in class any time soon. It went well. In 1980, Mike and Carolyn survived the Communications Law class taught by Carolyn’s father, Jim Neal, and subsequently were graduated, married in Lincoln, Neb., and moved to Missouri, where Mike reported for the Springfield Daily News, at which he’d interned the year before. While Carolyn wrote copy for a local ad agency and radio station, Mike honed his reporting and writing skills.

He also learned to steer clear of riverbanks when canoeing. Snakes in Trees: 1. Husband and Wife in Water: 0.

A year later, despite Springfield’s having the best fast-food cashew chicken in America and great bar nights listening to The Morells, Mike had wearied of covering 23 Southwest Missouri counties in an unreliable, black Dodge Dart Swinger with no AC and no spare tire. Hence, the couple took their first leap of faith.  They pointed that car south by southwest and drove it to Fort Worth, Tex., where they welcomed a son, David, in 1984.

At the Star-Telegram, Mike soon found his newspaper niche was in editing. From 1981 through 1993, Mike served as features editor, copy editor, and copy desk chief. The Headliners Club of Austin named Mike Texas’s Headline Writer of the Year in 1987. That was the year of this hed gem: “Spies privy to hush-hush flush: New tools of trade don’t leave enough to the imagination” about a new listening device that picked up conversations from vibrations in toilet water.

Then, lo and behold, as Mike was wont to say, the teaching bug bit. A few guest lectures at a local community college, and Mike knew beyond doubt he was born to teach. The road to accomplishing that dream was literally the stretch of I-35 connecting Fort Worth to Denton. Starting in 1989, Mike commuted that route two evenings a week after work. In 1991, he received his master’s at the University of North Texas and was named the journalism department’s top graduate student.

The summer of 1993 brought the family to the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University for Mike’s PhD work. During his final academic year (1995–1996), Mike served as advisor to The Post, Ohio University’s student-run newspaper. In spring 1996, he received his degree and the school’s outstanding PhD student award.

Next stop after the hills of Athens were the mountains of Logan, Utah. At Utah State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Mike taught undergraduates, edited and advised the students’ Hard News Café website for 9 years, and headed the department from 2005 through 2009.

And, lo and behold, he launched a second career in his “spare” time. Once again working late nights after long days, Mike wrote numerous books for National Geographic—among them God Grew Tired of Us, for which he spent several days interviewing Lost Boy of Sudan John Bul Dau, and Return to Titanic, for which he spent 11 days aboard the research vessel the Ron Brown with co-author and discoverer of Titanic shipwreck Robert Ballard.

Mike’s favorite story from his time in the North Atlantic was when everyone aboard the Ron Brown gathered to watch the first pictures sent up via the expedition’s remotely operated vehicle Hercules. All was silent. Mike, who believed in having music for every occasion, began humming part of “Ride of the Valkyries.” With that bit of prompting, Mike later recalled, “all these big-brained scientists” together sang, “Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit” à la Elmer Fudd in Bugs Bunny’s “What’s Opera, Doc” episode. Mike loved it when people connected with each other like that.

In 2007, Mike wrote a personal favorite, Last Unspoiled Place: Utah’s Logan Canyon, a book he himself pitched to the Geographic simply out of love for the 41-mile-long canyon that was now practically his backyard.

His book Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and The American Press and Radio in World War II was named 2002 Book of the Year by the American Journalism Historians Association.

Mike was an optimistic problem-solver and peacekeeper. As such, he was tapped for leadership positions at church as well as at work. At Logan’s only Presbyterian church, he headed session, the governing body of the church, as well as the committee overseeing a major building renovation. During his time, session was twice tasked with nominating a pastor for approval by the congregation.

Participating in such lasting church work brought immense satisfaction to Mike, whose Facebook profile would later proclaim “awed by the wisdom and heart of a certain Jewish carpenter.”

Being a religious man did not preclude Mike’s showing off his rapid-fire and sometimes blue or simply questionable-given-the-audience sense of humor. Case in point: While guest lecturing undergrads at Brigham Young University, Mike wanted the class to fully understand the importance of choosing a research topic you love, because “you’re going to wake up to it day in and day out for a long time.” Pause. Sweeney neurons fire. Devil appears on one shoulder. Angel appears on the other. Angel loses. “It’s almost like having a second wife, a concept I believe you’re all familiar with.”  Collective intake of breath. Sweeney thought bubble: “I’m so screwed.” Then, the welcome explosion of student laughter. Score: Luck of the Irish: 1. Latter-Day Saints with Senses of Humor: 1. A total win-win.

Despite his many hours at work, Mike managed time for family—occasionally taking one for the team, as when he dislocated a disk while leading a game of “Simon Says” at David’s 7th birthday party. He taught David chess in elementary school and golf in junior high. He loved not only taking the family to see 1993 Texas Rangers in person but bragging that, when young David yelled “Hit a homer, Raffy,” Rafael Palmeiro hit a homer on the next pitch.

He introduced David to the music of the Beatles, the B-52’s, Weird Al, Meatloaf, and Jimi Hendrix and got Cake, Phish, and Jason Isbell in return. Upon learning that his grandsons knew  all the lyrics to “Love Shack,” he grinned and nodded as if to say, “My work here is done.”

Mike introduced David to Tolkien at age 7. When asked which writers David  introduced him to, Mike said Dostoevsky, “but it didn’t take.”

Mike was especially proud when, as a member of the Utah State Symphony Orchestra, David played the Tuba Mirum trombone solo of Mozart’s Requiem at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City.

On July 4, 2009, empty nesters Mike and Carolyn returned to Athens. Besides teaching, Mike served as associate director for Graduate Studies at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and editor of Journalism History.

Mike loved nothing so much as helping grad students succeed, even going so far as to recommend schools other than OU if he thought they better matched a prospect’s interests. In remembrances of Mike, many students have said they chose Scripps because of him.

After his cancer diagnosis in 2013, Mike took up painting to take his mind off his illness. He was prolific with pastels and loved giving away paintings to friends and students. Nothing pleased him more than to later see his gifts on their recipients’ Facebook pages.

He continued to teach as long as he could and lived his motto of “squeeze the juice out of every day.”

In 2018, he received the university’s Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award. As recipient, he had the honor of speaking at the Graduate Commencement ceremony in the spring of 2019. He delighted in leading a call and response in the style of Bob Dylan – “You’re gonna have to serve somebody!” – and affirmed Dylan’s message in his closing remarks. “It’s not the quantity of life that matters,” he said. “All life is too short. It’s the quality! Find a way to make your life count for others and it will count for you.”

Mike was predeceased by his parents, Donnis and Betty Jean Sweeney.

Survivors include Carolyn (Neal) Sweeney, his wife of 41 years, son David (Angela) Sweeney of Moorhead, MN, grandsons Jack and Milo, brothers Orval (Suzanne) Sweeney of Williamsburg, VA, Ronald Sweeney of Lakewood, CO, and William Richard “Rick” (Elise) Sweeney of Lovettsville, VA, world’s best yorkie-beagle Fiddich, and grand-dog Khaleesi.

An online memorial service to celebrate Mike’s life will be announced later.

A podcast of several conversations with Mike can be found at

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American Journalism Historians Association Graduate Student Convention Travel Fund in honor of Michael S. Sweeney.  Please share a memory, a note of condolence or sign the online register at

Obituary courtesy of Jager Funeral Home. 

Michael Sweeny Headshot