Cary Heinz served thirty-four years as a public school educator until June 2021, and now writes about history, politics and sports.
On August 7, the great David McCullough died at the age of 89. In our society, we tend to overuse the word “awesome” unless you’re Tony the Tiger. David McCullough was a great man
On a shelf in my living room I have a wooden keepsake from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home saying “I can’t live without books”. I own many books, hundreds, and Mr. McCullough’s are among the best I own, or have been written in the last half century, hands down. He has sold over ten million books, and everything are still in press. Please remember, many are thick biographies, not James Patterson or John Grisham novels.
I didn’t grow up in a house with a lot of books, but I saw Merle Miller’s first speak frankly, an oral history of Harry Truman on a shelf in my youth. When McCullough’s 992-page volume came out in the early ’90s, I lent it to my dad after I finished it. He wasn’t an educated man, but not only did he read it, but he lent it to enough people that I finally got it back with the spine of the book split in half. This is how this tome is readable. I loved the story before I discovered Mr. McCullough, but this made me love the story even more.
McCullough was a compelling storyteller both on page and on screen. It’s impressive to win not one but two Pulitzer Prizes for making history, says Ken Burns Civil warthe first of many documentaries, but also hosted the PBS series The American Experience forty-eight times.
The Pulitzers were for the “doorstop” but compelling biographies of Harry Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001). HBO brought both to the screen, with Gary Sinise bringing the thirty-third president to life. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney became John and Abigail Adams in a miniseries produced by Tom Hanks which won thirteen Emmy Awards. Hanks made a mini-documentary about the author in a short documentary titled “Painting with Words” which brings the author to life.
Watching McCullough lecture or be interviewed is as interesting as reading his work. You learn and laugh; it educates and entertains. He could spend ten years on a book (Truman), while telling anecdotes and stories in a simple and relaxed way. I have to admit that I watched his Booknotes and In-Depth shows on CSPAN several times and enjoyed every second of it. I saw those interviews again and remember how he taught a young teacher (me) the importance of telling stories to bring history to life. I think the kids who were sitting in my room heard some threads weaving.
McCullough admits that as a scholar of literature at university, he was not a “trained historian”. As if that mattered. He is able to write captivating works on a variety of American history topics and bring his characters to life. You opened his books, and you traveled back in time through the words as he did when he composed them. As a tireless researcher, he overlooked nothing and, as his contemporary Robert Caro put it, “he turned every page”.
He loved libraries and spent many hours there, but also found it essential to visit the sites where events were happening and “feel” them. To do this, he arranged to walk through the United States Capitol to recreate and understand what it was like Vice President Harry Truman after he received a message to come to the White House on April 12, 1945. FDR had just died, and Truman didn’t know he was technically already president.
For “Painting with Words”, the historian, then in his seventies, climbed the historic tower of Christ Church in Philadelphia, as John Adams had done. It was over a hundred feet high, the view was beautiful, and this acrophobic noticed there were no railings up there. It’s “living history,” but McCullough spent thousands of hours reading primary sources like letters, supplementing that with secondary works. He describes that you have to “marinate your head” to understand another period.
He worked in what we would call a shed, but he designated his “world headquarters”, an eight-by-twelve foot structure with over eight hundred books and a typewriter – yes, every word David McCullough produced was on a 1960s Royal typewriter. The building lacked a telephone, music, or computer. This man, often seen in a dark blazer, shirt and tie and gray or khaki trousers, was truly old school.
After graduating from Yale, the Pittsburgh native worked for a new magazine called Sports Illustrated, then, motivated by President Kennedy’s inaugural “Ask Not…” speech, took a job with the United States Information Agency, followed by a dozen years with American heritage. There he began to read about the Johnstown flood of 1889 (where 2200 people perished) and was disappointed with what he found. He swore to “write the book he wanted to read”, and the rest is quite literally history. Wonderful and glorious history. Twelve more books would follow, descriptions of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, as well as the Trio of Presidential Biographies (also covering Theodore Roosevelt’s early years.)
A few days after his death, I met my friend and former colleague John, who also read many books. John said: ‘He made Harry Truman one of my favorite presidents and John one of my favorite founding fathers. His genius for humanizing historical figures and bringing American history to life was unmatched. Well said, by a very good history teacher.
In 1951 David McCullough met his future wife Rosalee, whom he married in 1954. She died in June, just two months before his death. His cause of death was not given, but I like to think that after sixty-eight years of marriage, he missed his partner and wanted to join her. I hope they have Royal typewriter ribbons available in the afterlife. Thank you, sir, for your contributions and American history, and humanity.