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A Historian Who Made History

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    Writer and historian David McCullough appears at his Martha’s Vineyard property in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, on May 12, 2001. (AP/Steven Senne)


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A lifetime devoted to history ended peacefully on Sunday, August 7. David McCullough was 89. He wrote 13 books on subjects ranging from architecture to presidents to the Revolutionary War (1776). He narrated multiple documentaries, including The Civil War by Ken Burns.

David McCullough was born in 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a child, his parents and his grandmother surrounded him with books and inspired a love for history.

During his college years at Yale, McCullough had apprenticeships with renowned magazines like Time and Life. He said, “Once I discovered the endless fascination of doing the research and of doing the writing, I knew I had found what I wanted to do in my life.”

McCullough earned a Bachelor's degree in English in 1955. Upon graduating, he wrote and edited for a variety of publications for 12 years. He also wrote in his spare time while working at American Heritage, a history magazine. The Johnstown Flood was the result. The book was published in 1968 and addressed one of the worst flood disasters in United States history. The New York Times and many other reviewers praised his work.

Despite limited finances, McCullough’s wife encouraged him to take up writing full-time. McCullough was encouraged to cover more natural disasters. He worried he would become known as “Bad News McCullough.” He decided to tackle less tragic subjects.

McCullough remembered what his Yale teacher, playwright Thornton Wilder, had once told him: “He (Wilder) got the idea for a book or play when he wanted to learn about something. Then, he’d check to see if anybody had already done it, and if they hadn’t, he’d do it.”  

McCullough decided to write about a place he’d walked across on many occasions: the Brooklyn Bridge. His work won multiple awards, and later McCullough was chosen to narrate a documentary based on the book.

His next project on the Panama Canal was so influential, it inspired President Jimmy Carter to oversee treaties that handed ownership of the canal to Panama in 1977. 

McCullough is perhaps most famous for his biographies of presidents Harry Truman and John Adams. Both books earned the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Some critics have complained that McCullough glossed over the failures of his subjects. But in keeping with biblical truth, McCullough acknowledged all great leaders are fallen. Though they had weaknesses, by God’s grace they were enabled to accomplish much good.  

He noted, “I think it’s important to remember that these men are not perfect. If they were marble gods, what they did wouldn’t be so admirable. The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them.”

(Writer and historian David McCullough appears at his Martha’s Vineyard property in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, on May 12, 2001. AP/Steven Senne)