He was an awardwinning author. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was a noted historian. But five children, 19 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren will remember David McCullough as a father, a grandfather, a man who would break out in song and dance at a family gathering, and who cooked up Sunday spaghetti.
It was a poignant scene watching the family walk from the McCullough homestead on Music Street to the West Tisbury Congregational Church and into the church to take their seats. Inside, before a packed audience and overflow crowds in the churchyard and at the West Tisbury library, the McCullough family shared their memories, shed a few tears, and broke out into laughter on several occasions during a celebration of 89 years well lived.
“Pop was the greatest father who ever lived,” son Geoffrey McCullough said during his reflections on behalf of the family. “Name all the greatest qualities and character, he had them. When he wasn’t perfect, it was probably due only to a momentary imbalance in great qualities. No tricks. No grudges. He did not make deals … Honest, courageous, passionate, self-disciplined, he was just so nice … What a spirit he had, and he didn’t hold back. He let you know what he thought. He’d tell you what he loved, who he loved, and he saw love as the highest form of appreciation, and not to express it is to leave you and the person you love incomplete.”
David McCullough expressed his love of his wife, Rosalee, often. She died two months ahead of him, something Michael Hill, David’s friend and colleague, spoke about during his eulogy. “They’re such a remarkable family in so many ways,” he said of the McCullough children. “During the last several weeks, I’ve seen something else. The incredible strength they’ve shown in dealing with two painful hammer blows of grief, and dealing with all of it. David and Rosalee would be so proud at how they’ve responded, with an incredible spirit of courage and dignity.”
The Rev. Cathlin Baker touched upon David’s deep love of Rosalee and family during her words of welcome. “The life force behind his achievements was love,” she said. “The love he shared with Rosalee and his family. So today we recognize how much we will miss David McCullough as we celebrate all that he has given us, especially a love that is lasting.”
Geoffrey McCullough broke up as he spoke about his mother and father’s love. “I picture him being with Mom, and God, how much he loved Mom. He loved her every hour, every minute, and every second of every day. He told her so. He told the country so. He said she was a star he steered by,” he said, wiping a tear before regaining his composure. “Mom and Pop to each other were ceaseless sources of admiration. Abigail and John had nothing on Rosalee and David. He loved his kids, and he loved his grandkids. He loved reading fiction and loved movies. He loved theater. He loved nice clothes and cars, and putting on a party. And he loved our country. Pop loved the town West Tisbury, the land, the scale of the town, always and everywhere he loved to walk. And here in town, he especially loved to walk Music Street and the Panhandle. He loved the house. He loved the backyard. He loved the view from the porch. He’d say, ‘Look at that light. We shouldn’t miss the light hitting the field.’ But what he was also saying was we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to express appreciation for it.”
His son also touched on his father’s love of food. “He loved lunch. Lunch at home. No matter where he was on a trip, if it was lunchtime, you stopped,” his son said to some laughter. “Medicine Bowl, Wyoming, lunchtime, you stop. Stop and have lunch. And film crews called going on shoots with him, ‘Dining with David.’ And dinner? Yes, he loved food. He loved shopping for it, talking about it, and he was a good cook. Sunday nights, Sunday night spaghetti. He’d boil and bake it his own way, in a big pot. He’d bring it down to his end of the table saying, ‘Watch out, it’s hot.’ Keep in mind, every Sunday. And every Sunday, [Melissa] would say, ‘Oh Dad, it’s the best.’ And he loved the praise. Dinner was always an event. He had a high expectation for good conversation.”
Hill spoke about how much McCullough loved visiting the Yale Club, the private club of his alma mater in New York City, and how he liked some less refined things: “He never passed up the opportunity to dash off the interstate to eat at a Bob Evans restaurant.”
Geoffrey McCullough also spoke of his father’s love for writing. “He said it wasn’t work to him, but he worked hard every day, all day — Sundays hardly an exception,” he said. “How much fun he had. He had fun with each of us, all of us, and all of us together. We have so many stories, so many events and parties and regular times. Many of those times, more than many, involved singing.”
Hill spoke about the inspiration that David and Rosalee McCullough were to so many. “There was never a dull moment. They were always on the move. There was always an exciting new adventure — a new book, a new television series or film project in the works, or a new cause to champion … You always knew you were in for a lively and memorable journey. David’s mantra was, ‘On we go.’ When he got going, we all got going.”
Hill called his friend a “brilliant and charming conversationalist” who would always take time to speak to an aspiring historian. “He loved to paint, to sing, to dance, and have a good martini at the end of the day,” Hill said.
David McCullough cherished his roots in Pittsburgh and the American spirit, which included optimism and overcoming adversity. “How lucky are we that he has left for us a wonderful legacy of his writing — all filled with inspirational prose to which we can always turn in the most difficult of times. David was a perfectionist with an insatiable curiosity for everything,” Hill said. “Always looking for little details, colorful little details of life.”
Fittingly, the memorial service for McCullough — the author of American history that included Truman and John Adams — featured a medley from “The American Songbook,” and closed with a heartfelt singing of “America the Beautiful.”
Not only did McCullough love Pittsburgh and America, but he had a passion for West Tisbury. “Arriving here at 18 years of age, in pursuit of Rosalee, David also fell in love with the Island,” Baker said. “He and Rosalee moved full-time to their house on Music Street in 1972. Painting the story of David’s life will surely include his writing shed, a 1940s Royal typewriter, stone walls and pastures, a home bustling with children, a small village center, a general store, a library, a church with a steeple. I will leave it to your imaginations to elaborate on the painting.”
There was a light moment as Geoffrey McCullough turned to Baker and corrected her. “He never called it a writing shed, or a shack or a studio,” he said. “He called it his office — the office. A few times he called it world headquarters. He loved his office.”
McCullough enjoyed speaking at college commencements, Hill said. He recalled McCullough telling graduates, “Never do things lukewarmly. If you’re going to ring the bell, give the rope one hell of a pull.”
McCullough was described as kind and generous. “Secretary of State Dean Acheson once described Harry Truman as a captain with a mighty heart. Well, in my mind, David was my captain, my captain with a mighty heart,” Hill said. “But now, alas, that heart beats no longer, and my friend has embarked on a new journey, but he’s not alone. As we gather here today, I picture David and Rosalee in two rocking chairs, holding hands, and gazing down upon us with smiles on their faces and whispering to us all, ‘On we go.’”
I have read several of Mr. McCullough’s books and thoroughly enjoyed them. A few years ago I attended a talk he gave at the Tabernacle which was followed up with his singing while accompanied by a friend on the piano. When over I left around the back and to my surprise and delight Mr. McCullough was there talking to fans. I waited until all were gone and said to him “Looks like you were having a lot of fun singing.” The response of this man who has given pleasure to thousands, if not millions, was “Isn’t that what life is all about!” So true, so true.
Excellent eloquent coverage of a beautiful moving Memorial Service for a great Vineyarder, and his family, and a great American. We all are better for what David McCullough gave to our country and to our island. Well done!
As a fan, I’m devastated at the loss. He was someone I simply knew despite never having met him-almost “a family member” as he would say about his subjects Adams and Truman. His books comforted me through hellish times and I will cherish and turn to them for the rest of my days. What a life! What a legacy!
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