‘Arky and Ave’ were one of city’s best-known couples

ABOVE: “Avalon,” one of Avriel Shull’s houses from the 1950s.

This feature first appeared in the August 2011 edition of Urban Times.

By Connie Zeigler / Contributing editor

Few couples had more impact on Indianapolis in the 1950s and 1960s than Avriel and R. K. Shull.  It’s safe to say that if you lived in the state in those decades, you knew or knew of one or both of the Shulls. R. K. Shull can be conjured up today only on microfilm and archival copies of Indianapolis newspapers, but many Indianapolis suburbanites are spending their days and nights with Avriel still. 

After their engagement in 1950 or so, R.K., an Indianapolis Times reporter, and his young bride-to-be – a professional artist since her early teen years – spent more than a little time at the Indianapolis Press Club, hanging with R. K.’s reporter friends.

One of R. K.’s Press Club associates happened to be a stringer for Life magazine.  That acquaintance – undoubtedly inspired like so many others would be by Avriel’s pizzazz and much-admired, flame-haired beauty – is probably the person responsible for the couple’s wedding landing in a multiple-page spread in Life magazine in 1951.  The photographs and the text showed model-perfect Avriel as the star. The dark-haired R. K. was clearly more suited to a character role.

Gracing the pages of Life would have been a high point in any other Indianapolis couple’s marriage. But “Arky and Ave,” as they were known to friends, were literally just beginning their newsworthy lives.

The year after the wedding, Life did a follow-up photo shoot. In it, the couple was shown with the three-dimensional model of a house, which Avriel had made as she prepared to become a house designer and builder.  She was undeterred by her lack of both an architecture degree and prior experience. 

R.K., who’d covered City Hall, the police beat, and done investigative reporting for The Indianapolis Times, was shooting off in a new direction, too.  He was about to become the city’s first TV critic.

By the late 1950s Avriel had built that home whose model she had shown off in the 1952 Life photograph.  She’d also laid out an addition to the Town of Carmel, which she called Thornhurst, and had built a number of the 21 modern-style homes she would eventually complete there.  She’d also designed and helped construct homes in some of Indianapolis’s newest, upscale suburbs, including Sunset Acres, Meridian Hills and Crow’s Nest.  According to one family friend, R.K. helped out at Avriel’s construction sites at times.  But no one worked harder than Avriel, who often laid the stone herself on the houses she designed.

R.K. and Avriel Shull as seen in their Life magazine feature story.

When R. K. wasn’t working his construction “job” he was writing a now-regular TV criticism column.  By the 1960s it had exploded in popularity.  While the other Indianapolis newspapers had tried to ignore television, seeing it only as competition. The Times made the most of Shull’s razor-sharp wit and created a huge following for his question-and-answer column on the medium, its mistakes, mishaps and main players.  Shull’s column was syndicated to all Scripps-Howard’s papers in the country.  Eventually “Shull’s Mailbag” would run in 260 newspapers.

The highly successful, duo-careered Shulls were a ground-breaking couple.  They were part of the Indianapolis beau monde, highly sought-after guests at political fund-raisers and black-tie affairs – for which Avriel would often design and sew her own show-stopping gowns.  Donna Mikels Shea, a great friend of both Shulls, who was an investigative reporter with The Times until she left that career to marry Cortland Shea, recalls her husband referring to one particularly outlandish dress of Avriel’s as looking like a red, sparkly “cheap drum set.”

In 1965, the award-winning Indianapolis Times folded.  R. K. received an offer to replace the TV critic for two New York newspapers and he took it.  But Avriel refused to move. Her career was here where her name had become synonymous with modern house design.  Everyone knew the business and the woman by the single name, “Avriel,” and she wasn’t about to become an anonymous housewife in New York.

Luckily for Arky, who probably wouldn’t have succeeded in uprooting his stubborn wife, publisher Eugene Pulliam famously decided he wanted two things from the recently defunct Indianapolis Times. The Peanuts comic strip was one.  R. K. Shull was the other.   Shull moved home and joined Pulliam’s The Indianapolis News.

Avriel kept on designing and building houses.  She gave birth to two daughters, Bambi and September. Bambi arrived a bit early because her mother fell while building a cabin for her parents. About this time, Avriel was diagnosed with diabetes. 

But that didn’t slow her down.  By the 1970s, the Shulls were busier than ever, Avriel was designing and building houses all over the Indianapolis area and in other states.  She also had begun selling house plans in national magazines. But she didn’t take care of herself; her diabetes was uncontrolled, causing her to go into diabetic comas.

R.K. helped her fill orders for her plans.  He began to write his clever column working from home to help watch the girls and to try to keep an eye on their mother, whose extreme workload was an additional stressor to her diabetes-racked body.    

Finally, in 1976, Avriel’s diabetes won the battle it had waged with her.  Her heart gave out. R. K.’s was broken.  

Still, he continued to write his irreverent “Shull’s Mailbag,” answering readers’ questions about 1950s television series and actors and actresses with his smart, funny, to-the-point columns.  In fact, he was so knowledgeable about so many things that fans reportedly called The News offices asking for him to settle their bar bets on TV trivia. 

Through the loss of his wife, becoming a single parent, remarrying and eventually losing his eyesight, Arky kept his sense of humor. After retirement, he attended an Indiana Broadcast Pioneers meeting and introduced himself as the man who “used to be R. K. Shull.”  In 2005, he was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

R. K. Shull died in the home Avriel had designed for them in 2007.

Avriel Shull left her mark in stone and mortar on the city. At least 50, and probably far more, of her houses are still standing in the Indianapolis area.  The Thornhurst Addition that she made to the City of Carmel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. 

R. K.’s work is still remembered with fondness by his former readers.  Arky and Ave were an awe-inspiring couple who helped make Indianapolis a modern city.  Or at least, as he would have written, “so the story goes.”

Connie Zeigler holds a master’s degree in history. She enjoys digging up a surprising, forgotten story and sharing her pirate’s booty with Urban Times readers.