Phil McFarren,’62, married his lifelong friend and high school sweetheart the August of his senior year at Ball State. He and Ina Raye (VanDine) McFarren were active on campus—she as a home economics major and honor student, and he as editor of the student-run newspaper and a selected member of Blue Key, an all-campus men’s honorary. They “owned the world,” McFarren said, until Ina was diagnosed with brain cancer that October.
“She wasn’t feeling well after a trip to a Purdue football game, and, days later, an Indianapolis surgeon was telling me he took as much of the tumor as possible without disabling her,” said McFarren, who double-majored in news journalism and mathematics. “Four months later, the tumor returned, and I left Ball State to care for her.”
Ina died in April 1961. She was 22 years old.
“It totally changed my life,” McFarren said. “I decided there was nothing more terrible that could happen to me, so I might as well be brave.”
From that point on, the native of Pierceton, Indiana, pursued a life of bold moves. When he returned to Ball State to complete his degree, he led a transition of the student newspaper from a weekly to a daily in the 1960s. That experience fueled his dogged reporting on the Muncie Star Press police beat. With his mathematical background he became a noted budget and tax analyst of state and local government operations, leading to his work on behalf of the Gary, Indiana business community and the related Northwest Indiana Crime Commission. In that role, he asked tough questions of the United States Steel Corporation, better known as U.S. Steel. In late 1967, the global producer convinced McFarren to apply his command of business and journalistic skills to advance the company’s reach and reputation, working in their Chicago Regional Tax Division Office.
He held several management positions in the tax and public affairs sectors for U.S. Steel for 25 years, covering all of the steel-producing state locations. In 1993, he and his wife, Joanna McFarren, started the McFarren Group, a global consulting company that guides businesses through capital infrastructure projects.
Returning to ‘Where He Began’
The entrepreneur returned to campus in October after 28 years to pass down bound issues of The Daily News (then The Ball State News) from his days as a reporter and editor from 1958-61. McFarren stayed for hours to talk with student media leaders about the industry, share memories, and reflect on lessons learned during his varied and successful career.
“My career wouldn’t have taken off without a journalism background,” he said. “I would have never gotten to the Muncie Star, which outfitted me with the expertise to launch a career that spanned many industries. That’s the thing about journalism, it teaches you to be a critical thinker, to consider various perspectives, to ask the tough questions and to be able to communicate those and other news and information clearly and accurately. Those are critical skills that transfer to any field.”
He sat with students in the Unified Media Lab, an industry-driven learning space for students to collaborate across platforms. As McFarren toured the state-of-the-art production studio and rows of computers, he reminded students that “the latest technology in my day was a typewriter,” motioning to the antique Associated Press teletype that sits in the front of the newsroom to remind students of Journalism’s 50 year history as a department. Students’ commitment to story is even older, said lecturer of journalism Kate Elliott, who is leading the department’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
“In 1919, the 11-member senior class of the Eastern Division of Indiana State Normal School, later to be renamed Ball State, published its first journalistic endeavor, a student yearbook called The Orient,” she said. “Ball State’s first newspaper, The Easterner, hit the press in 1922, and Ball State students have continued to present award-winning coverage of campus and community news ever since.”
Adapting in an Evolving Industry
In August 2017, the Daily News transitioned from a daily newspaper to a once-a-week tabloid with a digital-first approach. The student-led team updates ballstatedaily.com 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with stories about the campus and Muncie communities. Daily News Editor-in-Chief Allie Kirkman talked with McFarren about the opportunities and challenges of such a switch, which prompted McFarren to talk about the importance of adaptability in an ever-changing media landscape.
During Homecoming 1959, McFarren and then Editor-in-Chief Mearl Grabill, ’60, discussed the need to take the paper from a weekly to a daily to meet the campus’s demand for news. The team printed a daily paper for two weeks, and the concept of “The Ball State Daily News” was born, although the name didn’t change until 1968 — the same year journalism officially became a department.
“We didn’t have much technology and electronics, so everything had to be done from scratch,” he said. “For the first two weeks, I spent half my time with Lincoln Press.”
Kirkman said she appreciated her time with McFarren and felt inspired by his passion and commitment to compelling journalism. The Indiana native said she enjoyed looking back through newspapers McFarren shared and updating him on what lies ahead, most notably, the DN’s launch of a refreshed, independent website in early December.
“Even though the field has transformed over time, the mission has remained the same,” Kirkman said. “As journalists, we have the ethical responsibility to share the news and stories that impact our communities every day. We are the watchdogs, the protectors and caregivers.
“As McFarren has shown, good journalism can make our world a better place.”
Advice From the Field
McFarren peppered his reflections with advice for life and work, which students posted on an office whiteboard. From someone who has been in their shoes, McFarren reminded students to:
- “Never discount who your source of information could be, and talk to everybody and anybody you can.” On the police beat at the Muncie Star Press, he got more news tips from security guards and janitors than through traditional channels.
- “Gather a range of contacts, then gather more.” Having a diversity of sources and perspectives adds richness to your reporting and gives you a fuller view of complex issues, he said.
- “Writing is an art.” Journalistic writing was among the greatest lessons he learned at Ball State. Quality writing is tough, he said. Stick to it and always push yourself to get better.
- “No one taught me how to do my job. You have to adapt.”
- “Be interesting and learn another skill or field.” McFarren is glad he pursued a double major because his command of math helped him analyze and explain complex issues in the tax and business world. Being a good writer/communicator is great, but having an additional expertise or niche only makes you more knowledgeable and marketable.
- “You can do anything as long as you can pay for it.”
- “There’s an old story that remains true. If you have a complicated tax return and you give that to 50 of the best tax people in the United States, you'll get 50 different answers and they'll all be correct.
You have to have the mindset that there is more than one way to solve a problem or approach a story.”
McFarren left the day, giving students encouragement to dream bold dreams:
“Students often say, ‘I could never do that,’ but it’s not true,” he said. “It could be anybody if you’ve got the strength and determination.”
His life is testament to that drive and focus.
by Alexandra Smith '18
- Student status: First-year graduate student, MA in public relations
- Expected graduation: May 2020
- Hometown: Elkhart, IN
- Fun fact: When I'm not reading or writing, I'm running. I've done four half marathons and one full marathon.
- Future goals: I would like to work in social media for a company like Ironman Triathlon or Disney.