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A Rich Life in History: David McCullough

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One of my favorite regular speakers at our National Book Festivals through the years was historian and biographer David McCullough, who passed away this week at age 89. A great friend of the Library of Congress, he was a warm and witty presenter, charming the audience in that clear, distinct voice that I always remember from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”

McCullough not only shared those little-known details of the lives of his subjects—from presidents to the Panama Canal to the Johnstown Flood—but always emphasized to the festival goers the importance of history and understanding lives and events in the context of their times. One of those festival goers—a teacher friend of my wife’s named David Kinsella—summed it up in this Facebook post:

“Very saddened to hear of the death of the great historian and biographer David McCullough. I have many memories of meeting him over the years, but the Q&A that occurred at the 2011 National Book Festival may be the most memorable. My question to him that day: ‘What are the five lessons from history that our students need to know before they graduate from high school?’ His response, paraphrased:

  • What matters in history is knowing what happened and why, not memorizing dates and quotes.
  • American history did not begin with the Declaration of Independence. Americans had hundreds of years of history before the Declaration. Students should, in particular, examine the history of Native Americans.
  • Students should learn history through means other than books and teachers. Music, plays, art and architecture can teach students much about history.
  • Students should learn history through the lab technique. History should be a hands-on experience, in which students reach conclusions on their own. When students figure it out for themselves, they will never forget it.
  • Students should have an opportunity to work with original documents and travel to the places where history happened. Students should be given an opportunity to experience a connection with people from the past.
  • Coda: Attitudes about history are caught, not taught. If a teacher is excited about the subject, students are more likely to be excited.”

I’m going to take the time to remember David McCullough by watching some of his National Book Festival appearances over the years on the Library’s website. And I’ll look forward to being inspired by that next great author at this year’s festival on Sept. 3.

Two images, side by side: Teacher David Kinsella stand in a large hall where National Book Festival authors are signing books. A banner, "David McCullough" hangs in the background. The second image shows Mr. McCullough sitting at a table signing a book with Mr Kinsella looking on
David McCullough signs his latest work for teacher David Kinsella at the National Book Festival.

Thanks to David Kinsella, instructor at Patriot High School in Nokesville, Va., for permission to use the content from his Facebook post.


Comments (7)

  1. Thank you David for your memories. I was there that day and remember your question. I was also honored to have him answer a question of mine, about when he was doing his research for John Adams. He talked about how special it was to hold Adams’ tiny first book, one that he wrote his name in multiple times. It was the first time I saw him in person and I made sure I saw him every festival after that ending in 2019. I will always treasure my signed books. Thank you for teaching. I’m a retired hs math teacher.

  2. David McCullough was a gentleman and a scholar in the best sense of those words. Most of us know of his books, but he served on school committees and worked with teachers and aspiring authors. He was special; his eloquent books are just part of his legacy.

  3. It took my breath away when I heard the news of David McCullough’s death. He was one of those people I thought (or hoped) would always be there. Years ago, I remember his was the voice of American Experience as well as ‘The Civil War’. There was something so comforting when his voice came on – I knew I could trust the program because I trusted him. His books were a joy to read and his enthusiasm about history and US education when he gave a speech always inspired. Deepest sympathies to his family.

  4. If you ever attended a speakers series featuring David McCullough, you learned what an enthusiastic presenter and consummate mentor teacher he was.
    I left his session excited to share the story of John Adams with my students and use it in conjunction with teaching Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793. His teaching tips for learning history in the context of story telling, using primary sources, art, on-line museums, and field trips made learning fun and engaging. He will be dearly missed.

  5. David was a gentlman and a scholar in the best sense of those words. He supported other writers and spent time with teachers and students. He leaves a wonderful legacy in his published books.

  6. For the last 30 years, my wife and I give a financial award to one ROTC cadet and midshipman from each of the branches of the service here at Purdue University. Part of that “award” is I give them Mr. McCullough’s book, 1776, and that one book ignites in them a sense of where we came from, what the odds were and an intimate look at George Washington as well as a deeper sense of the total commitment to save this newly established republic. Through the years so many of these men and women who went on to be commissioned officers and proudly serve our country invariably remark it was Mr. McCullough’s book that brought a love of history into their lives. I feel as if we’ve all lost a dear member of our family.

  7. David McCullough was a rockstar to me. If I could get somewhere to hear him speak I would be there. In my heart I dreaded the day that he would pass. Early in July I checked his name on the Internet, and found the love of his life had passed. He and Rosalie had such a beautiful love story, and he was always so excited when he spoke of her at his lectures.

    When I saw that she had passed, I knew that Mr. McCullough‘s days are numbered. In many ways his passing reinforces love those to head. I shall always cherish a note he sent to me once thanking me for a birthday card I got sneak to him at the bridge dedication in Pittsburgh. What a wonderful man to send a thank you card for a simple birthday card. And I will once again watch painting with words with tears in my eyes. I feel like I loved him like a father.

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