In the pantheon of our country's greatest American historians, David McCullough's name will forever be thought of as one of the most brilliant caretakers of our nation's history. He's painted portraits with words and made history come alive. His exuberance about the human spirit is what sparks his interest to write book after book to teach all of us about the fabric that's created our great nation.
He is an American treasure.
I was fortunate to hear Mr. McCullough speak at The New Jersey Speaker Series at NJPAC. It felt like I was sitting in a comfortable chair next to a dear friend. His warm and easy manner, and his voice (oh, that voice! I could listen to any Ken Burns or American Experience episode he narrates over and over again just to listen to it) set the stage for what was a fascinating and brilliant presentation.
He endeared himself to the audience when he began by talking about his 60-year love affair with his beloved wife, Rosalee.
Who knew that, at 81 years young, this two-time Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was such a romantic? He continued to pay tribute to Rosalee by sweetly singing an old Bing Crosby tune:
My Girl's an Irish girl, with the blarney in her smile. She's the fairest in the Isle. Sure she sets people talking, when she goes out walking. My Girl's an Irish girl, from her head down to her toes. And no care in the world will harry me, when she promises to marry me. My sweet little Irish Rose.
His self-deprecating humor perfectly illustrates his down-to-earth manner. One of his many stories was about a young student who attended one of his lectures. After the question and answer period was over, the person in charge of handing the handwritten questions to Mr. McCullough quietly gave him one more as he whispered, "You might want to save this one."
"Aside from John Adams and Harry Truman, how many presidents have you interviewed?"
Speaking for over 90 minutes without notes or slideshows, Mr. McCullough relied on his extraordinary intelligence and ability to tell a good story the way Will Rogers could spin a good yarn.
He demonstrates his love of history and history education by teaching and lecturing at over 100 universities across the country. He holds teachers in high regard because, as he says, today more than ever our culture is fast becoming illiterate, and history is essential to having quality leadership in our country.
"Teachers are the most important people in our society. They are doing the work that counts and their capacity for inspiring and motivating young people will affect us far into the future."
When I attended public school in the 1960s our history books were old and lacking. Teachers did little to inspire us to learn more about figures such as Paul Revere or Abigail Adams. They remained merely footnotes on a page.
But I was blessed with parents who instilled a love of history at home, and together, we visited many historical sites, such as Williamsburg, Gettysburg, and Fort Ticonderoga, while discussing their importance. (Note: I believe it is the responsibility of every parent to teach their child about our nation's history. Our children hold the country's future in their hands. You have to know where you've been before you can know where you're going.)
David McCullough is America's teacher because he knows the footnotes that have been neglected in schools across the nation, and spends years researching and writing about them to tell their story.
John Adams. Harry Truman. Theodore Roosevelt. The Greater Journey (Americans in Paris). The Johnstown Flood. The Path Between the Seas (Panama Canal). The Brooklyn Bridge. Mornings on Horseback (Theodore Roosevelt). Brave Companions: Portraits in History. 1776. In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Story.
He's been "happily working for more than three years" on a book about the Wright brothers. Coming out this May, this is the story of two self-taught brothers who grew up poor. Their father believed in the value of education, and knew that even a child's toy could be an instrument for learning. So their town library became their school, and it was there that they discovered art, history and music and realized their aptitude for math and physics.
Theirs is a story not only about the bravery it takes to accomplish something that has never been done before, but also about the importance of learning from your failures and never giving up on yourself or your dreams.
The Wright brothers, as in every David McCullough book, will leap off the pages as we spend time with them, and finally take their rightful place among timeless American figures.
END NOTE: My husband, mother and I attended an after party held to meet and take photographs with Mr. McCullough. Unlike other speakers, Mr. McCullough mingled with the guests and my mother (a lover of history who has read every David McCullough book and has a deep respect for him) made her way over to him to hold their own private conversation. I had no idea what they were talking about.
It looked liked they'd been friends for years.
When it was our turn with the photographer, I began to say the elevator speech I'd been nervously practicing all day, but I was interrupted by Mr. McCullough who, after seeing my mother again, exclaimed, "Here's my belle." Grabbing my mother's hand, he directed how we'd stand for our "photo shoot."
But before we left, we had two questions we hoped he'd answer.
My husband wanted to know if Mr. McCullough ever started to write about a subject that he changed his mind about. The answer was yes, Pablo Picasso, because he didn't like him very much.
I asked if he'd ever consider writing a book about a woman, such as Betsy Ross or Dolly Madison. I should have been smart enough to know what his answer would be.
Yes. A book about Rosalee.
This post was previously published on the blog, An Empowered Spirit.
Cathy Chester is a writer and health advocate who writes about living a life of quality after the age of 50 on her award-winning blog, An Empowered Spirit. Living with Multiple Sclerosis for 28 years she finds joy in showing others how to focus on their abilities despite disability. She also writes about books and film, social good, animal rights and using compassion and kindness as a way of making the world a better place.
Follow Cathy on Twitter at @cathyches.
Photo Credits: Michael Paras Photography