Remembering the genius, kindness of David McCullough

He crafted his books in his writing shed on Martha's Vineyard

LIKE THE HISTORIC figures that he brought to life – John Adams and Harry Truman to name two – it is hard to wrap our heads around the fact that one of America’s great archivists of the events that shaped this nation has died at the age of 89, just months after his beloved wife Rosalie left this place for another.

David Gaub McCullough, born during the Depression in Pittsburgh, would come to call Massachusetts home, taking the unusual step of landing his family on Martha’s Vineyard where he and Rosalie would raise their three children.

It was there 20 years ago that I had the honor of meeting and getting to know David. I had asked him if he would voice a radio advertisement for a client and he had agreed. I grabbed my 16-year-old son for the journey and promised him that this was no ordinary man he was about to meet. I carried two copies of McCullough’s brilliant biography of Adams – one to sign to my son as a budding historian and the other to hand over to a Cape library to auction off that same evening (it fetched $500 in two minutes).

He looked at the radio script I had prepared and asked if it would be okay if he made some edits. I joked that since he had two Pulitzer Prizes in his pocket (and I had none) that I would not be offended.

Then David asked my son if he wanted to go into the house to see what a Pulitzer Prize looked like. It was not a moment of hubris on David’s part, but a teaching moment for my son.

I remained in his backyard on the Vineyard. As I sat in there, two images jumped out at me. The first was the ancient, even Revolutionary, stone walls that lined his backyard. It was easy to imagine those walls as centuries old, a fitting reminder for this chronicler of history of life long ago when our nation was still being formed and the fate  of our young Republic still unsettled. The second image was David’s writing shed, a 10-foot square hovel where he wrote most of his books on an electric typewriter. In the shed were shelves on all sides to hold the books and papers that would come to populate his extraordinary detail of the stories that he dedicated his life to telling.

One of the great memories I hold from that day is his wife Rosalie driving me and my son back to the ferry so that we could get that second book back in time for the auctioneer to raise money for the local library. Rosalie was undeterred in her mission and bounced us up and down in the island station wagon (which lacked working shock absorbers ) to make the ferry on time.

Some weeks later, after I had finally finished the Adams biography, I called David to praise him for this extraordinary book and then confessed that there were two instances in the book when I actually cried.

“Let me guess when that happened,” he offered. “When Abigail died and when Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, 50 years to the day on July 4th when they signed the Declaration of Independence?”

We lost a great man in Massachusetts. We are blessed that he has left so much behind for us to feast upon.

Ernest J. Corrigan is a local writer living in Quincy where John and Abigail Adams once lived.