Just two months after the passing of his beloved Rosalee, awardwinning author and noted historian David McCullough has died.
McCullough, 89, and his family had a home in West Tisbury. According to the New York Times, McCullough was at his Hingham home when he died Sunday.
“We are so sad, but what a life,” his son Geoffrey McCullough wrote in an email.
McCullough was originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., but was lured to the Vineyard by his wife. The story goes that when he met Rosalee at a dance at the Rolling Rock Club, he pretended he knew where the Island was, and then had to look at a map.
McCullough was a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, for “Truman” and “John Adams.” He was also widely acclaimed for his other works, “The Johnstown Flood,” “The Great Bridge,” and more recently “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.”
In 2019, just after “The Pioneers” was released, McCullough was at West Tisbury Post Office, where he dedicated a freshly minted stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad.
“This marvelous event, the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad,” McCullough said during the event, “cannot be overstressed as one of the most important events in our country’s history, and emblematic — symbolic — of several things that need to be remembered. And one of them, key to me, is this marvelous achievement only happened because of immigrants. They did the work.”
In an interview with The Times about “The Wright Brothers,” McCullough said he didn’t consider himself a historian. “I’m a writer,” he said. He was an English major at Yale University, and had no advanced training in researching history. “It’s like being a detective,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to start writing.”
As for his gift for storytelling, McCullough came by that honestly. He told The Times that his father was also a great storyteller. “At the dinner table, I remember hearing wonderful stories about Pittsburgh in the old days, and the old characters. In grade school, if I raised my hand when the teacher asked if anyone had a story to tell, he’d always pick me, because he knew I’d go on so long that he wouldn’t have to do any work.”
Robert Hauck, chair of the trustees of the West Tisbury Free Public Library, said McCullough “was an integral actor in the life of the library.”
Hauck noted the library’s Common Room is named after McCullough and his wife Rosalee. Hauck said David and Rosalee were regular contributors to not just the library “but the community as a whole.”
Hauck described McCullough as “a very essential part” of the library “for a very long time.”
In addition to being a library benefactor, Hauck said McCullough was a library user.
“He was always affable, always eager to do something to help the library, always with a smile,” Hauck said.
“David McCullough had a novelist’s instinct for finding compelling characters, and a journalist’s eye for the just-right detail to capture a larger moment,” Martha’s Vineyard Museum research librarian Bow Van Riper wrote. “He showed millions of readers that history doesn’t have to be a parade of dry, dusty facts — that it can be a vivid, vibrant story instead — and all of us who work to bring the past alive are in his debt.”
In a casual conversation with The Times, publisher Peter Oberfest asked McCullough what the newspaper could do a better job with. McCullough thought for a moment and then told him obituaries, because “ordinary people are gold for a historian.”
McCullough is survived by his five children, Melissa, David Jr., William, Geoffrey, and Dorie. He is also survived by his 19 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Following in her grandfather’s tremendous writing shoes, Louisa McCullough co-authored our coverage of Islanders Write this year.
McCullough twice participated in Islanders Write. Kate Feiffer, the event producer for The Times, spoke about his generosity to the event and other writers. “In 2014, we invited David McCullough to speak at the first Islanders Write writers’ conference. He enthusiastically agreed to be part of the event, and said he’d like to be the final speaker of the day. We expected that he would enlighten and entertain us. What we didn’t expect was that he would show up at the event, with Rosalee, early in the morning and sit in the front row for most of the day, listening to the other panel discussions,” Feiffer said. “I am forever grateful for this act of generosity, not only toward the other writers speaking that day, but for the event itself. I have told this story many times, because I believe that David McCullough’s presence and engagement throughout that day set the tone for the future of what we were hoping to achieve, a vibrant community-based writers’ festival. We were also lucky that he joined us a second time as our kickoff speaker (with Nathaniel Horwitz) in 2019 at the last Islanders Write before the pandemic.”
A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, August 16, at 2 pm, at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations in David’s memory can be made to the West Tisbury Library, online at westtisburylibrary.org/publiclibrary/friends-foundation, or by mail at P.O. Box 905, West Tisbury, MA, 02575.