By Janice Lane Palko
It’s the rare historian who is a household name, but David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and native Pittsburgh, was just that. McCullough died on August 7 at 89 in his Hingham, Massachusetts, home after a long, distinguished career which arguably made him the country’s most well-known historian.
McCullough was born on July 7, 1933, at Allegheny General Hospital to Ruth and Christian McCullough and grew up in Point Breeze on Glen Arden Avenue and attended Shady Side Academy. In a 1995 interview with the Academy of Achievement, McCullough said this of his childhood in Pittsburgh:
We went to the public schools, and we had lots of friends, and we played on baseball teams and football teams, and ran on the track team, and all of that. I was in the dramatics at school, I worked on the newspaper. I thought I was going to be a painter. I drew the cartoons for the paper. I painted portraits. I sang in the glee club. I did all of that, and I loved all of it. I loved school, every day. It wasn't cool to say you liked school, of course, but I did. And it was the same in college, and it's been the same since.
A gifted student, he left Pittsburgh in 1951 to attend Yale University where he studied English under such literary giants as Robert Penn Warren and Thornton Wilder. In a 2001, Post-Gazette interview, McCullough said this about his choice of schools: "My father wanted me to go to either Carnegie Tech or Pitt. The old man was a real Pittsburgh guy. We could only use Gulf gas in the car. Mother said it was part of going to college to leave home, so I went off to Yale."
He graduated with honors in English literature in 1954 and married Rosalee Ingram Barnes, whom he’d met in Pittsburgh when he was 17.
He began his writing career with a new publication called Sports Illustrated. After working for 12 years as a writer and editor for various publications such as American Heritage, McCullough had the niggling idea to write a book.
Drawing on his Western Pennsylvanian roots, he wrote his first historical, The Johnstown Flood, in 1968, which was highly acclaimed and allowed him to become a full-time author. For his next subject, he focused on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, with the publication of The Great Bridge in 1972. He next wrote about the construction of the Panama Canal with the book The Path Between the Seas in 1977. The book won the Francis Parkman Prize, The National Book Award in History, the Cornelius Ryan award, and the Samuel Eliot Morison Award and established McCullough as one of the nation’s premiere historians. In 1981, he released Mornings on Horseback, which recounted the life of President Theodore Roosevelt. The book earned McCullough his second National Book Award. In 1991, he published Brave Companions: Portraits in History, which was a collection of previously published essays.
In 1992, he wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Truman about the nation’s 33rd president. The book was adapted by HBO in 1995 as a television movie, Truman, starring Gary Sinise. His biography about our second president, John Adams, was released in 2001 and became one of the fastest-selling non-fiction books of all time and earned McCullough a second Pulitzer Prize. HBO adapted the book for a seven-part miniseries in 2008, starring Paul Giamatti in the eponymous role. The mini-series won 13 Emmy awards and four Golden Globes—more than any other miniseries in history.
He then examined Adams’s contemporaries with the book 1776, and in 2011, his next historical, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris was released and detailed the 19th-century Americans who congregated in Paris, among them Mark Twain, Mary Cassatt and Samuel Morse.
In addition to his distinguished writing career, McCullough hosted PBS’s American Experience and narrated numerous documentaries including Ken Burns’s The Civil War and the film Seabiscuit, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For his 80th birthday the City of Pittsburgh noted McCullough’s remarkable life and career by renaming the 16th Street Bridge the David McCullough Bridge.
The father of five died less than two months after the death of his beloved wife Rosalie, with whom he’d been married 68 years. Among the many things David McCullough will be remembered for is being a native of Pittsburgh and for having an inordinate talent for telling us the “way it was.”