Rosalee Barnes was 18 years old when she met 17-year-old David McCullough at a dance at the Rolling Rock Club near Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1951. When she told him she was from Martha’s Vineyard, David pretended to know where she was talking about. He would later admit that he had to look it up in an atlas, to find out the Vineyard is an Island off the coast of Massachusetts.
The couple would go on to be married, raise five children — Melissa, David Jr., William, Geoffrey, and Dorie — and now have an extended brood that includes 19 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
On June 9, Rosalee died, surrounded by her children at the family home on Music Street in West Tisbury. She was 89.
“She is the star we have all steered by,” Dorie McCullough Lawson said of her mother. “She had a sense always about how to make things better for people. She could just sense what would be helpful, and quietly do that to make things better.”
Family members, particularly David, are heartbroken at the loss of their anchor.
Rosalee is remembered by family and friends as a woman with a sense of humor, a huge smile, a strong moral compass, and as the glue that held her tight-knit family together. Her husband, David McCullough, is the better known individual. But he would tell you, family and friends say, that Rosalee was a strong partner in his pursuit of writing his well-known and much-heralded historical books.
At the grand opening of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in 2019, McCullough said as much — stealing the audience’s heart in paying homage to Rosalee. “I married up,” he said as he asked her to stand for a round of applause. “The lessons of history are innumerable, but one of the more obvious lessons, and one that we cannot forget or ignore, is that very seldom is anything of consequence accomplished alone.”
Family and friends all shared the same sentiment over the past few days. David McCullough had the fame, but he did not accomplish his great historical works alone.
“Every bit of work he did, she was completely involved in,” Lawson said. “Her opinion mattered the most. Her opinion he relied on.”
Geoff McCullough said his mother was a contributing partner to his father’s writing career. “With all my father has done for us as family and the country comes as part of a collaboration,” he said. “It was their work.”
Much of that work happened here on the Island in their home on Music Street. “It was home,” Geoff explained. Rosalee juggled all of the family’s other responsibilities so that her husband could concentrate on his writing. “Where that happened most was Music Street. He wrote the majority of his books right there. He did it without the internet and without any research assistant. He’d have to go off-Island to do research.”
Growing up as the daughter of a politician who became Massachusetts attorney general, Rosalee knew what it meant to be in the public spotlight. She once represented her father with her mother at an event in Texas, she was one of the first to drive with her father through the Callahan Tunnel, and she flew with Gen. Edward Lawrence Logan, the man whom Logan Airport in Boston is named after.
Matthew Stackpole first met the McCulloughs at a fundraiser. He was asked to introduce David, who was giving the keynote address at an Island fundraiser. While he was waiting for him to arrive, Stackpole struck up a conversation with Rosalee. Stackpole would become close friends with the McCulloughs.
“David would often say Rosalee’s the editor in chief, mission control, and also chair of the ethics commission,” Stackpole recalled. “She had great insight, missed nothing, and was always paying attention.”
Rosalee was one of five children born to Clarence and Doreen Barnes. Her roots on the Island go back to her great-grandparents, who began coming to the Island in the 1850s. Clare Barnes would buy a house on Waban Park, which was recently restored by Rosalee’s surviving sister, Margot Barnes Goodwin. The story was featured earlier this year in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
The McCulloughs established their own Vineyard story in West Tisbury, where Rosalee and David were beloved neighbors who could be relied on for a cup of sugar, an egg, or even a few cigarettes back when they both still smoked, recalled Ann Burt. “I’m just terribly sad,” Burt said of Rosalee’s passing. “I loved her dearly — a nice, funny lady.”
Morgan Coffey grew up with the McCulloughs. She was the same age as their daughter Melissa when their fathers worked at Time Life together, and they’ve been best friends ever since. Coffey now lives in Edgartown, her love of Martha’s Vineyard influenced by Rosalee.
“She thought it was a special slice of the earth,” Coffey said of Rosalee, who was like a second mother to her. “This is always where everyone landed. No matter where we are, we get to land here, which is a great feeling. She was so special to everyone who knew her.”
The McCullough home was a welcoming one, neighbor Susan Wasserman, who lived across the street from them for 40 years, said. “It’s the kind of household with five kids, two adults, where another plate or two was just fine. They were very generous about that kind of thing.”
She remembered Rosalee as a great storyteller. “David has that reputation, but she was a great storyteller,” Wasserman said. “Her father rented and later purchased a house in Oak Bluffs. She had wonderful stories about coming from New Bedford on the steamer and buying candy and magazines.”
Wasserman said Rosalee was a doting mother and grandmother. “She was lovely, low-key, and incredibly supportive of what David wanted to do.” It was Rosalee who encouraged David to write full-time, despite the early economic implications of that decision. “He’s always recognized what an important role she played in the family, really as a partner.”
Wasserman found it difficult to sum up her friend and neighbor in only a brief interview: “We’re going to miss her terribly. She was a very good friend.”
That theme was repeated by other neighbors.
Bob Gothard, who moved into the neighborhood in the early 1980s, said after his son was born, it was not uncommon to find him over at the McCullough house on Rosalee’s knee, with her reading a book to him. “She was fabulous,” Gothard said. “She was David’s rock and anchor. She would hold it all together for him … She was a constant. She was always there, always helpful, really friendly. She was a great mother of West Tisbury. She always had a good word to say about everyone. A great soul.”