Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian David McCullough said libraries have shaped his career.
The West Tisbury library board of trustees and the library foundation Sunday dedicated the new community program room of the newly renovated and enlarged West Tisbury public library to David and Rosalee McCullough. Hunter Moorman, chairman of the West Tisbury library foundation, thanked the McCulloughs and, in particular, Mr. McCullough for his four years as honorary chairman of the library foundation. A full presidential term, he noted, to laughs from the full house.
The McCulloughs, West Tisbury residents, were instrumental in raising funds to help pay for the $6 million dollar project. They were early donors to the project and in his role as honorary chairman of the foundation, Mr. McCullough, an acclaimed historian and author, drummed up support and funds; the library foundation ultimately raised over a quarter of the construction costs. The town picked up almost a quarter and almost half of the project’s cost was funded by matching funds from the state. The old 5,640-square-foot library was enlarged to 13,000 square feet and opened on March 22, after a 14-month construction period.
Mr. McCullough, a former West Tisbury library trustee, has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for “Truman” and “John Adams,” along with two National Book Awards, for “The Path Between the Seas” and “Mornings on Horseback.”
A narrator, historian, and lecturer, he is also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award. Mr. Moorman cited the McCulloughsmany contributions to the library. These included a fundraiser for the library at the Agricultural Hall three years ago where Mr. McCullough, the guest speaker, spoke to a full house about his latest book, “The Greater Journey.”
“The McCulloughs gave the fledgling library foundation the faith and the courage to persist in what then seemed a daunting, uncertain task,” Mr. Moorman said. “They have lent their names, their fortunes and their warm and gracious encouragement to the foundation all along the way.”
In addition to the McCulloughs, Mr. Moorman thanked the library’s many other generous donors and praised the work of all who helped bring the project to its current stage, including library director Beth Kramer and her staff. He singled out the work of the library building committee and its countless hours of inspiration and work.
Mr. Moorman also noted the need for continued support from the public to complete unfinished details, such as the landscaping. He then introduced town selectman Richard Knabel and library trustee Dan Waters.
Mr. Knabel praised the McCulloughs — his neighbors — for their help with the library and for their contributions to the community as town residents.
“Our appreciation of their efforts and support for West Tisbury in general over many, many years, and especially for this library expansion project are deep and heartfelt,” he said. “Without their help we might not be sitting in this wonderful space. A jewel of a place such as this is a big part of the glue that holds our community together and is a necessary pillar for a functioning democracy.”
Mr. Waters, who guided much of the fundraising efforts, recalled a breakfast meeting with Ms. Kramer and the McCulloughs in the early stages of the fundraising drive. The McCulloughs told him they were prepared to give a sizable donation, the biggest donation they had ever given to an organization.
“They paid for breakfast,” Mr. Waters said, “and we thank them for that. On the way out the door, David tugged on my elbow and said, ‘this project will succeed.’
“He said that with that gravitas that only his voice has and it sort of sunk in. During the fundraising campaign we always had his words to fall back on, ‘this project will succeed.’ It was like a lesson from one of David’s history books.”
A personal history
After Mr. McCullough, with Ms. McCullough by his side, received a symbolic key to the library, he spoke about the time he was a library trustee, when the library was in the small building on Music Street across from the McCulloughs’ home. As a trustee, he had a key to the library.
“And for a number of years when we would have friends over for dinner, in our modest way,” Mr. McCullough said, “I would say, ‘would you like to adjourn to the library with a little brandy?’ And yes, we would cross Music Street and have a grand evening. It was a wonderful time.”
He spoke about his time living in West Tisbury. The McCulloughs now live in Boston for part of the year. He got a big laugh when he mentioned the time he drove his unwilling daughter to preschool in Edgartown. To cheer her up he began to sing, “I wish I were in the land of cotton.” She interrupted, “You would.”
Mr. McCullough emphasized his personal connection to West Tisbury and to libraries during the 35 years he has lived there.
“It would be unfair of me not to emphasize the degree to which the formative stages of both our marriage and my working life were all here,” Mr. McCullough said. “I am a library devotee. I believe in them. And of course they are also a part of my working life.
“I really believe in communicating with those to whom you’re writing, and I believe in giving credit to the many people who make the kinds of books that I and others write possible. One person gets a name on the dust jacket and that’s really not accurate or fair. And while I praise the existence of the institution of public libraries in our country, and I stress the importance of books above all as part of the learning process, I want to give credit where I think it is never sufficiently given, and that is to the librarians, the staff of libraries. I tell students I have worked with: don’t just go into a library because you are looking for some aspect of your research; talk to the librarians. Tell them what you want to do, what you are looking for. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you don’t know because that is why they are there — to help you. And very often they know as much or more than many of the books that they are taking care of in the library.
“So I want to say to you, Beth, and to all who work with you: here’s to you, for the very important role you play not just in the town and in the Island community, but to the children, to the young people you are shaping in this library.”
Mr. McCullough talked about the effect that working in a library had on his career. He said that one summer while researching a paper in the Yale University library, where he was a student, he realized that he liked the work and for the first time begin to think there might be something like this he could do for the rest of his life.
“Every subject I have undertaken,” he said, “without exception, has been one that I didn’t know much about and if I knew all about it I wouldn’t want to undertake it, because for me the research, the detective casework of it, is the pulp. That’s the adventure. It’s going to a new continent you have never set foot on before and it builds, the more you do it. And almost all of my work has been in libraries.”
Mr. McCullough talked about his current project, the story of the Wright brothers from the small town of Dayton, Ohio — the first to fly. “They had a bicycle shop,” he said, “so they are commonly thought of as clever good ol’ small town mechanics who knew how to do anything, and of course they could figure out how to build something that could fly. And there is some truth to that, but it is far from what the reality was. Those two men were brilliantly educated, brilliantly motivated — geniuses — and they never finished high school.”
Mr. McCullough said that they grew up without any modern conveniences, in a small book-filled house. Their father, an itinerant minister who believed everybody should have books and should read, encouraged his sons to visit the public library whenever a book they needed wasn’t at home.
“The brothers were trying to figure out about propellers. Should a propeller be like a propeller on a ship? So they went to the public library, only to find that there was no theory about propellers on ships or on airplanes. There were no airplanes, so they had to work it all out themselves.
“Never doubt,” Mr. McCullough said, “that the public libraries have figured importantly in our history.”
He said that reporters would comment to Orville Wright late in his life, “‘It’s wonderful to think you grew up under such disadvantages’ and he would get quite angry. He would say, ‘no disadvantages. We had the greatest advantages anybody could ever have. We had access to books and a father who encouraged intellectual curiosity.’ What more does anybody need to get ahead in whatever it is they want to do?
“So, thank you, Beth, and thank you all who have helped keep this an emblem for what we believe in here in dear old, wonderful, exemplary West Tisbury.”