Historian David McCullough has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award twice, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and written books that remained on the New York Times bestseller list for months. Fortunately, all those laurels rest lightly on him, as a story he told at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s “Better Together” luncheon Thursday at the Ritz quickly revealed.
Gulf Coast president and CEO Mark Pritchett introduced McCullough by praising him for among, other things, his “mellow baritone voice.” Here’s McCullough’s response to that:
“In the Boston winter of two or three years ago, we were locked in between blizzards, so when it stopped you’d go get provisions. The supermarket was a madhouse, but I found everything on my list except cashews…so I asked [an employee] where they were, and he helped. Ten minutes later at the cash register, the same person came up to me and said, ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but were you by any chance the narrator of Ken Burns’ Civil War series?’”
McCullough admitted that he was. “‘Well, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,’” the man responded. “‘When that series came on, I was suffering terribly from insomnia, but when I heard your voice, I went right out.’”
You can sense from that anecdote something about McCullough’s down-to-earth upbringing in his native Pittsburgh. “How we are brought up at home shapes us for life,” McCullough told a packed room of approximately 700 guests at the luncheon. “And I was brought up to believe that you’ll never meet anyone who doesn’t know something you don’t know.”
That eagerness to learn led him to write his first book, The Johnstown Flood, he says. He was so interested in the story of how 2,500 people died in the historic flood that he went to find a book about it. The first one wasn’t very good, he recalls, and the second one was also unsatisfactory. So he realized he would need to write the book he wanted to read.
Since that time, McCullough has written The Great Bridge, John Adams, Truman and The Wright Brothers, among other histories/biographies, taking years to complete his research and then, eschewing computers, composing his works on a standard Royal typewriter. “It goes very slowly,” he admits, “but then I don’t think all that fast.”
McCullough’s fascination with his subject, whether it’s Truman or Adams, comes through to his audiences. His respect for both John and Abigail Adams is evident. “Adams was the only one of the Founding Fathers who never owned a slave,” he says. Initially planning his book about Adams as a dual biography of both him and Thomas Jefferson, he eventually became so engaged by Adams that he switched focus to write only about him and his family. “Jefferson destroyed all the letters between him and his wife,” McCullough says, “but Abigail [who wrote hundreds of letters] was right in the middle of it all,” as is McCullough’s own wife, Rosalee, whom he singled out at the luncheon as his “North Star.”
A few other quick quotes:
“Truman was one of the greatest students of history we’ve ever had in the White House. The most effective presidents we’ve had were students of history.”
Traits to admire in a leader: “Strength of character, who you surround yourself with, doing your homework, and tolerance. Be willing to listen to what the other side has to say. Also, you don’t get too big for your britches even if you are president.”
A painter and lover of music and the theater, McCullough says, “The arts should never be treated as the parsley around the main dish. They are part of the main dish.”
“Learning comes from books, from thinking, from innovation. No computer has ever yet had an idea.”
“I can’t wait to get up in the morning and go back to work, because I don’t know what’s going to happen any more than my characters do.”
The Gulf Coast Community Foundation luncheon is an annual community education event that welcomes nationally recognized thought leaders here to discuss important civic issues. For more information about these events, visit gulfcoastcf.org.