Martha’s Vineyard mourns passing of David McCullough

Author praised for bringing history alive.

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, or by mail at P.O. Box 905, West Tisbury, MA, 02575.


  1. Oh the amazing talent that is lured to our shores! Thank you Mr. and Mrs. McCullough for your legacy of giving and of living simply here on Music Street. History ,family and friendship will carry on through your children. Sending my sincere condolences to them.

  2. Oh, how sad, but as his son said he and Rosalee had a great life. I got to know them both a little through calligraphy work I did for him. They seemed so very much in love and seemed to have such fun together. I remember seeing them having dinner and drinking martinis at Alchemy and dancing at another venue together, always looking into each others eyes. It must have been hard for David to lose Rosalee. I hope they are somewhere together now. Condolences to the family.

  3. I had the profound and brief pleasure of meeting and chatting with David McCullough only twice and I will remember him as one of the most wonderful and talented writers ever. A true hero.

  4. One of the best live speakers and all without notes. Loved his voice on PBS shows as well. He is now one for history and the stories that will be told.

  5. May he rest in peace. He was a neighbor down the road, a gentle and good man, who loved West Tisbury, contributed to it unendingly, and saw our library, all libraries actually, as a beacon of knowledge; and the focal point of our town. He was generous with his contributions, and his time. His writing has occupied many enjoyable hours for me. I will miss him personally, but I have many of his books. Reading them is like having a conversation with him. Sincere condolences to the extended McCullough family who have lost their matriarch and patriarch, sadly, in only two months.

  6. He served as a model of how history should be written, accessible and exciting for the ordinary reader without sacrificing truth and accuracy. He will be sorely missed by anyone who enjoyed a great and profound read.

    • We moderate comments because not everyone follows the rules. We have one moderator who has a lot of other tasks as well. Thanks for your patience.

  7. It is very sad to see someone gone who gave great stories and still could be around to talk with as if we were close neighbors in small and big gatherings. I was saddened to see his Music St home empty this summer. And I had prayed that he would find strength to return someday.

    Now, I hope he departed for another great journey, and I already miss him. But, hey, what a great life he showed to us.

    Adios, Mr McCullough!

  8. It was sad enough to hear about Rosalee and now to hear about David breaks my heart even more. However, I am not surprised that he followed his beloved Rosalee so soon after her departure; he so loved and adored her that I think his heart was forever broken. I will miss him and his story telling so much. He was the best author/historian in my view in the whole world, and very much a devoted husband, father and family man. My heart goes out to all his family and all those who loved him.

  9. I’m so sorry to hear about David and Rosalee. I’m a huge fan of Mr. McCullough. I had the pleasure to hear him give a talk several years back. I still remember the pearls of wisdom that he gifted his audience. I always waited in anticipation of his next book. He was/is my favorite historian. Now he belongs to history. Thank you, Mr. McCullough.

  10. I have such a great appreciation for his work. Sending deepest of sympathies and May Gods blessings be with his family and friends as well! 🙏

  11. Truly one of the most thoroughly accurate historians and gifted writers of his generation.
    He truly explained the history of canals, bridges, airplanes, and the arrogant disregard for the common people by the wealthy ,as well as the underpinnings of democracy itself , among other topics ..
    irreplaceable ….

    • Never read him but will have to. Off topic, you told me not to take your comments personal and I want to assure you I never will. I wish I could have responded to your comment before they were closed but them the brakes. And I will not attempt to do so here out respect to Mr. McCullough. Respectfully.

  12. David McCullough has passed, following Rosalee by two months. He had not returned to the Island since his love departed, leaving the Music Street home empty this Summer. He was the greatest historian of our times. What a gift it was to have him so close and so accessible. Another neighbor and friend has joined the Invisible Ones. I will be looking for his narrative history of Heaven once he gets settled in.

  13. David and Rosalee
    Were stopped at the Music St. Stop sign with their windows down. I called out and said “Mr McCullough they are selling your books over at the West Tisbury School I’m going to have to get you to sign the one I bought”. Wouldn’t you know it, soon after he was down there signing books.

    I will miss seeing him and Rosalee, they were a true part of the fabric of West Tisbury and Martha’s Vineyard.

  14. At 78 years old I found myself in love with David McCullough and all he wrote. It is wonderful to see how many will miss him as much as me.
    It was assuring to see his obituary was put together by another great historian and researcher- Bow Van Riper.
    How fortunate we are that people like this are in our lives.

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