David McCullough, successful explorer of America’s past, dies at 89

“A great historian passed away today,” biographer Robert Caro said in a statement Monday, adding, “There is only one consolation: his books will endure, helping America understand its past.”

David Gaub McCullough was born in Pittsburgh on July 7, 1933, one of four sons of Ruth (Rankin) and Christian McCullough. If he ever had a dark day in his early years, there seems to be no record of it. In interviews, he has said he loves the city schools he attends and has a healthy mix of interests, including reading, sports and cartoons, all encouraged by his parents.

In 1951 he went to Yale, where he became a member of the secret Yale Skull and Bones student society and was inspired by an English faculty that included Robert Penn Warren, John O’Hara, and John Hersey. Lunchtime conversations with novelist-playwright Thornton Wilder, he said later, particularly influenced his approach to choosing subjects – first, to dwell on them intensely – and taught him the importance to maintain “an air of freedom in the script” even when writing non-fiction.

Mr. McCullough graduated in 1955 with honors in literature. He had thought of writing novels or plays or, on the contrary, of studying medicine; in this case, he signed on as an intern at Sports Illustrated, which had started the previous year. Next came jobs as a writer and editor, first at the United States Information Agency in Washington, then for the history magazine American Heritage.

Working nights and weekends for three years, he completed his first book: ‘The Johnstown Flood’, published in 1968, established him as someone who could take on a familiar story – the great dam break in Pennsylvania in 1889 that killed over 2,000 people – and gave him a longer life. “A superb job,” wrote Alden Whitman of The Times. “Clever but lively, balanced but incisive.”

With the success of “The Johnstown Flood” and the support of his wife, he took a leap of faith by quitting his day job to write the story and biography full-time while the couple raised five children. Throughout his career, Mr. McCullough and his wife would read his first drafts aloud to each other – a practice he attributed to the vast improvement in his writing. Ms McCullough died in June at age 89 at the family home in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where she grew up. He had met Rosalee Barnes at a ball in Pittsburgh when they were teenagers, and they married in 1954.

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