Damon Chappie, a longtime Roll Call staffer and one of the top investigative reporters in Washington, D.C., died early Friday from complications of heart disease at age 40.
Chappie joined Roll Call in 1995 and quickly established himself as an expert in the Byzantine worlds of Congressional ethics rules and campaign finance. Over the next decade, he was ringside for a period of remarkable change and controversy on Capitol Hill, and Chappie’s investigations into the activities of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-Reps. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) helped drive official probes and sanctions of those lawmakers.
Over the years, Chappie developed a reputation for exacting standards in his reporting, putting accuracy and fairness foremost in his work. He broke new ground in the use of the Freedom of Information Act to pursue his reporting and, when the story called for it, applied himself tirelessly to the less-than-glamorous task of poring through mountains of documents to unearth critical information.
As a senior writer and investigations editor, a title he assumed in 2003, Chappie served as both a mentor and a source of inspiration to the dozens of young journalists who had the opportunity to work with him over the years.
Chappie’s professional successes came despite a daunting array of health problems. A hemophiliac, he contracted the human immunodeficiency virus from a routine blood transfusion in the early 1980s. Prior to 1986, about half of all individuals with hemophilia became infected with HIV through tainted blood products, according to the National Hemophilia Foundation.
In 1997, complications from that health crisis changed Chappie’s life dramatically when he began rapidly losing his sight, a process that left him almost completely blind by the end of the year. But rather than allowing that calamity to prevent him from continuing in the profession he loved, Chappie aggressively researched the technology needed to assist him in his reporting, becoming an authority in online databases and electronic document searches. He also worked in his Arlington, Va., community to lessen transportation and other access challenges for the disabled.
Born in Reading, Pa., in 1964, Chappie attended Daniel Boone High School in Birdsboro and went on to Pennsylvania State University, graduating in 1987 with a degree in journalism. During his time at Penn State, Chappie worked as a reporter for The Daily Collegian, the university’s newspaper.
During and shortly after his time at Penn State, Chappie did stints at several local papers, including the Lancaster Intelligencer and the Pottstown Mercury.
Chappie then moved to Washington, D.C., and went to work for the Bureau of National Affairs, serving as a reporter and editor on various daily and weekly news reports during his seven years there.
At Damon’s side when he passed away were Melissa Cohen, his girlfriend of more than nine years, his parents, Don and Janice Chappie of Reading, Pa., and his sister Connie Cammarano of Blandon, Pa.
At Roll Call, Damon will be remembered as a relentless fighter for what he believed was right and a man who reminded us that bringing truth to power should be a pre-eminent tenet of journalism.
Damon’s extraordinary character and courage were an inspiration to everyone at Roll Call. He was our friend, mentor, guide, collaborator, disgruntled co-worker, fellow conspirator, referee, sounding board and conscience, among other things. His loss has been felt deeply, and all those who work at Roll Call send our most heartfelt condolences to Melissa and the Chappie family.
Details of a memorial service to be held in Washington will be announced in the coming days.
In lieu of flowers, the Chappies ask that donations be made to the “Damon Chappie Memorial Award in Investigative Journalism,” a new fund being created to assist aspiring investigative journalists studying at Penn State University.
Penn State University
College of Communications
301 James Building
University Park, PA 16802
Please make a note on your donation that it is for the Damon Chappie Memorial Award.