In May, 1998, I met one of my boyhood heroes, David McCullough. With his death at his home in Massachusetts at age 89, America has lost a national treasure. His writings earned him two Pulitzer Prizes, two Francis Parkman Prizes, fifty-five honorary degrees, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2012, his native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, named one of its many bridges after him.
Ever since high school, his book about a young Theodore Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback, had been a favorite of mine. From early on, history had interested me, and T. R. inspired me to consider that a man could be active in public affairs and also write about historical topics. Back then I made a point of going through my grandparents’ collection of old hardcover copies of American Heritage magazine to look for articles by David McCullough. When he became host of two television series, Smithsonian World and The American Experience, it was as though a long-distance mentor had come into our living room.
It mattered to me that he was also a Pennsylvanian, and that he was not an academic. Moreover, it intrigued me that he tended to write about people and places that interested me. Even when his subject at first seemed beyond my interests, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, before long, he made me want to know more.
As I read his books and articles, I wished I could write half so well. And so, I re-read pages, trying to see how he did it, how he achieved such vivid artistry with words. At the time, I had no idea that he had studied English literature at Yale, or that as a pastime he enjoyed painting. All I knew that here was a man who could paint history with words. It was no surprise, then, that he subtitled Brave Companions, a collection of his articles, Portraits in History.
Whether he was writing about the Panama Canal or the Statue of Liberty, Simon Willard’s clock or the Wright Brothers, David McCullough had one end in view. He sought to show us that all our great cultural achievements derived from the ingenuity and tenacity of individual people. And yet, he saw also that none of those people worked in a vacuum, that they in turn derived from a cultural inheritance stretching back through their parents and grandparents, on back to the days of the Caesars and the biblical prophets.
That Saturday morning in May of ’98, David McCullough was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to give the commencement address at my alma mater, Dickinson College. Primarily about Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father and a founder of the college, it was a characteristically wise and witty and eloquent address. It was a result, byproduct would be far from the right word, of research he was doing for a biography of John Adams, and he later published it in his book, The American Spirit.
After he spoke, I sighed content, having at long last seen and heard in person a man who had for years been important to me. It seemed I could not have asked for more. Not interested in watching the graduates process along to get their diplomas, I set off for my small brick house across town.
As I walked along the pavement, I stopped dead in my tracks. Apparently with the same lack of interest in the graduates’ procession, along came David McCullough and his wife. Barely able to speak, I nevertheless accosted the poor man, haltingly asking him to sign my commencement program. He was taller than he looked on television, but here was America’s most eminent historian now only a few feet from me. He smiled and signed my program and introduced me to his wife, Rosalee.
Then I really risked wearing out my welcome by telling him how much as a local historian, who by day worked in the county courthouse, his books and his articles in American Heritage meant to me, and I told him that when I finished reading his biography of Harry Truman, I wished there were another two hundred pages.
“So did I!” he laughed.