Matt DeCample, the former spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe who applied his reporter’s eye, comic’s wit and writer’s openness in a three-year struggle against an extremely rare and aggressive liver cancer, died Sunday in Little Rock.
He was 44.
A Seattle native who got his Stage 4 diagnosis at 41, a year and a half after the end of the Beebe administration, DeCample endured countless hours of chemotherapy with his own humorous elixir of blogging, improv comedy and many deep friendships, media and PR associates said Monday.
(DeCample also confessed to writer Dwain Hebda in a November article for AY Magazine that having a terminal condition had unleashed his inner Amazon shopper. “Before, when I’d be on Amazon, I’d be like, ‘Should I get that later?’ Now, I’m like, ‘Order it!’”)
“Humor is how I cope,” DeCample told Hebda. “I’m going to make jokes. It comes in handy.”
As a TV reporter, government spokesman and PR executive, DeCample built a reputation for helpfulness and mentoring, all offered in an endearing and goofy manner.
Christina Munoz Madsen said DeCample, then KATV’s top political reporter, became a fast friend in just three months of working together in the early 2000s before DeCample went into political communications for then-Attorney General Beebe.
“He picked up the phone and called me to let me know he was going to be resigning from the station in about an hour, so that I could be the first to put in a request for his desk,” said Madsen, who also left TV for a communications career and is now a partner in her own firm, Munoz Pugh. “So I got his desk, in a great spot in the newsroom. Matt really took me under his wing, but always in a funny, lighthearted way.”
Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, inherited more than a desk from DeCample. “He literally left me his office [as attorney general spokesman],” Holmstrom said in a telephone interview. “You talk about a daunting task, stepping in for someone as widely respected and widely liked as Matt, and it was my first full-time spokesman’s gig. Let’s just say I had his new direct line in the governor’s office and didn’t hesitate to use it.”
In a statement, Beebe said DeCample had “the rare combination of an incredibly quick mind and a depth of knowledge that was truly astounding.”
“He was a music aficionado, a movie buff, a world of information,” Beebe said. “He was a diplomat (with the press corps and everyone else), he was kind to each and every one, extremely witty, and had more friends than anyone I know.”
Madsen and KATV anchor Beth Hunt said DeCample showed respect for everyone, from the governor to the person on the street, or the occasional novice TV reporter.
“He was a unique person who went out of his way to make me feel included and worthy of an opportunity to make it in the TV business,” Hunt wrote on Twitter, recalling her time with DeCample at the Little Rock ABC affiliate, where DeCample was known as one of the best-read staffers. “He very much took me under his wing,” Munoz said, “but not in a traditional way. Always goofily, always lighthearted.”
Holmstrom said DeCample was certainly funny, but also a solid idea man. “I went to him countless times to help me refine a joke or a speech, or to get an idea on how to handle something.” DeCample came up with the Downtown Partnership’s “Downtown Update” approach, complete with funny man-in-the-street videos, to support the partnership’s mission of growing and enhancing Little Rock’s core. Holmstrom said DeCample came up with the idea, a nod to the Weekend Update segment on “Saturday Night Live,” against a looming deadline. “That was in 2016, and we’ve had great success with that model. It’s the one we’re still using today.”
Sarah Roberson, executive director of City Year Little Rock, met DeCample in a series of holiday gatherings for friends without relatives nearby held annually by Grant and Rebecca Tennille, also former journalists. Roberson said DeCample was a reliable helper for her nonprofit, which provides intensive support for struggling students in public schools.
“Matt was just kind, and really smart, but also enthusiastic,” Roberson told Arkansas Business. “He did training for my City Year team, and a communications plan, and never turned down a chance to help.” But decency, honesty and a great capacity for friendship set DeCample apart, she said. “Probably the most amazing thing about Matt was that he had this vast network of people who loved him. People genuinely liked him; he wasn’t schmoozy.”
DeCample followed Beebe from the attorney general’s office to the governor’s office in 2007, and Little Rock lobbyist and political strategist Bill Vickery said DeCample’s humorous earnestness was particularly striking in the political world. “For all the talent and success and respect that the political world had for Matt, he was still a better human being,” Vickery said. “In politics we can all be caught up in our own selfish world, but he was always thinking of others. Again, so talented and smart, but with a servant’s heart and a good human soul.”
DeCample started his blog, “Mattie D. vs. the Evil C,” in the days after his terrifying diagnosis: intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma. In the first post, he said he’d crave normal, fun conversations with dear friends. “What I can’t decide is if it’s better or worse when it [the reality of the cancer] is not on my mind, because when distracted I forget the nagging discomfort and thoughts of an uncertain future.”
If he ever despaired, he didn’t let on. “After receiving his devastating cancer diagnosis, he never complained, he never stopped moving forward, continuing to perform improv up the very last week of his life," Beebe said.
“You can look at research and stats until your eyes cross, but not a lot of healthy 41-year-olds get cancer and stay otherwise healthy as it attacks them,” DeCample wrote. “So never tell me the odds! Just let me know what to do next.”
Throughout his therapy at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science, DeCample kept up his comedy and improv work, often at The Joint in North Little Rock. “He didn’t want to do a bunch of bucket-list sort of things,” Madsen recalled. “We just didn’t want to think that way. He put himself into the fight, with humor and helping other people.”
DeCample is survived by his parents, Richard and Linda DeCample of Washington state, and by a sister and a niece. A memorial service is planned for Arkansas, but details have not yet been worked out, Madsen said.
Update: A memorial service for DeCample is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, March 10, at the Clinton Presidential Center.
Through his friends, she said, DeCample’s humanity and humor will carry on.
“I’ll always remember him for the way he always looked out for other people, and that it was always with a knowing smile and a kind joke,” Madsen said. “Whether you were the governor or Joe Shmoe, it didn’t matter, you got treated with decency and a smile.”
Throughout her career in broadcasting and PR, Madsen said with a tearful laugh, people would often call her classy. “Matt made me laugh by telling me he knew me. He knew I wasn’t classy at all.”