David Mattingly is a ninth-generation Kentuckian whose family just two generations back were tobacco farmers. The Louisville native is so Louisville that when he was a child, he followed the Kentucky Colonels and was on the WHAS television show “Hayloft Hoedown.” He’s so Louisville that he played in the Seneca marching band.
He’s so Louisville that when dining at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant — before it changed to simply KFC — he met Col. Harland Sanders. Col. Sanders walked over to him and asked how he was enjoying the chicken.
“It’s alright,” he told the Kentucky icon. To be fair, he was only 9.
Mattingly is now also a classic example of what the late Brandon Klayko, founder of BrokenSidewalk.com, called “the boomerang effect.”
“There’s something about Louisville that always draws you back,” Klayko wrote. “It’s got a certain magnetism — the boomerang effect — that feeds a hunger for more.”
It certainly fed Mattingly’s hunger. His father’s job transfer saw the family moving from Jeffersontown to the Philadelphia area when Mattingly was 15. He would later go to college at the University of Alabama and begin a journalism career there before eventually enjoying a long, award-winning career at Atlanta-based CNN.
Along the way, Mattingly won an Emmy and covered countless historic stories — from the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 to the Boston Marathon bombings, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Gulf oil spill and many more.
He covered or met every U.S. president from Gerald Ford to Donald Trump, and his storytelling and reporting have been featured by filmmakers in internationally released movies and by nationally syndicated programs, including “Oprah” and the “Barbara Walters Special.”
But it was during a trip to Louisville to speak to journalism students at Bellarmine University in recent years — he had gone into semi-retirement at the time to write a novel and be a public speaker — that, for lack of a better phrase, he “rediscovered” his hometown.
“While I was here, I thought I would love to go visit the (television) stations I watched growing up,” Mattingly says. He sent out emails and got responses from three of the local stations with invitations to come in for a tour.
His visit with WAVE-3 proved to, literally, be life-changing; Mattingly says he immediately “hit it off” with General Manager Ken Selvaggi and News Director Bill Shory.
“That’s what really started me thinking, ‘What if?’” Mattingly says. “I loved what I was seeing here. The newness, the development that was going on. But I was also professionally getting restless. I had come to the conclusion I wasn’t really going to retire — I really wasn’t done. The stars aligned in such a great way … I couldn’t imagine anything better than coming back home again.”
So, in early 2017, he, his wife Greta, whom he had known since high school, and their pet pug Dougie did just that. And neither of them is looking back
“He always said that his grandparents were always so friendly to everybody,” says Greta, who is a visual artist. “He didn’t realize that was special until he came back here.”
And that’s one of Mattingly’s favorite attributes about Louisville — he’s been all over the world, lived in various states, and no place is quite as naturally friendly, he says. And he believes his tendency to gravitate toward this kind of welcoming attitude came from his aforementioned grandparents.
“Every stranger was a friend, and every friend was part of the family,” Mattingly says, describing his grandparents. “As I came back here and started exploring Louisville as an adult, I saw the same thing in so many people here. It’s part of the culture.”
He tells of, while reporting on a story, meeting a homeless man at a local shelter. The man had used the last of his money for a bus ticket to Louisville, and when Mattingly asked him why, the man said, “Because everybody told me the people here would help me.”
“That speaks volumes about how special this place is,” Mattingly says.
The Louisville native went from covering world events for CNN to covering his hometown for a local network affiliate, anchoring the 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. newscasts and doing community-oriented stories daily. He’s camped (without a tent) in Antarctica, climbed pyramids and volcanoes, camped on the Inca Trail and explored rainforests and deserts.
But Louisville is, and always will be, his favorite place.
“He said growing up as a kid, this city was nothing like it is now,” Greta says. “It’s been fun for him to see how it has evolved. He said it’s way cooler now than it used to be.”
“I came back here to find this city bigger, taller, faster, shinier and cooler than I ever imagined,” he says.
But it’s the people who will keep him here.
“Every boomerang I’ve talked to talks about how friendly the people are,” Mattingly says. “This is not Southern hospitality, this is not Midwest hospitality, it’s something uniquely Louisville. There is something genuine and special about the people.”