Famed Pittsburgh-born history author David McCullough dies at age 89
David McCullough once said that it was only later in life that he realized how his award-winning career was influenced by growing up in Pittsburgh.
“I grew up in a town, a city with such an abundance of history that we heard about history, and the history of Pittsburgh, not only in school but at the dinner table and the family's stories, which were often very hilarious because there were so many eccentric people,” he said in a StoryCorps interview recorded here with Heinz History Center president and CEO Andy Masich. “We're often directly connected to historic events that took place here. Fires, floods, strikes, all the rest. It just seemed to me that you couldn't go anywhere that you weren't seeing history right in front of you, if anybody were considerate enough and interested enough to tell you about it.”
McCullough, one of the country’s most popular history writers, died Sunday at his home in Massachusetts at age 89. It was just two months after the death of Rosalee McCullough, his wife of 68 years, whom he met in Pittsburgh while they were still in high school.
McCullough was best known for his many books, starting with the first, a 1968 best-seller on the Johnstown Flood. His biographies of John Adams and Harry S. Truman won Pulitzer Prizes, and he earned National Book Awards for books on the Panama Canal and Theodore Roosevelt. He was also the voice of history for TV viewers as a host of PBS's “The American Experience.”
In 2006, McCullough was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. On his death, the Washington Post called him a “master chronicler of American history.”
“There’s no place he loved more than Pittsburgh,” said Masich, who counted McCullough as a friend and mentor. Among McCullough’s late-career honors was the renaming of the 16th Street Bridge as the David McCullough Bridge.
Masich also credited McCullough with playing a key role in the creation of the History Center, a Smithsonian Institution-affiliated museum.
“He was really the inspiration for telling Pittsburgh’s story as big as it deserved to be," said Masich. "He felt that Pittsurgh was the essential American city, that if you could understand Pittsburgh, you could understand America.”
McCullough was born in 1933 and grew up in Point Breeze. He attended Linden Elementary School and Shady Side Academy before enrolling at Yale University. While he would never again live in Pittsburgh, he visited frequently and launched many of his books here, said Masich, including “John Adams,” “1776” and “The Wright Brothers.”
McCullough didn’t study to become a historian but got into the field by way of writing. The Johnstown Flood book was inspired by a photo exhibit on the 1889 disaster he saw while working as a researcher at the U.S. Information Agency, in Washington, D.C.
His other works included “The Great Bridge,” about the Brooklyn Bridge; Ken Burns, who cites McCullough as an influence on his popular history films, hired him to narrate his first documentary, “The Brooklyn Bridge.” Others who cite McCullough as a mentor include best-selling popular historian Walter Isaacson.
Other books in McCullough’s oeuvre include “Mornings on Horseback” about the coming-of-age of Teddy Roosevelt, and his final book, 2019’s “The Pioneers” about white settlers in the Northwest Territories.
McCullough was acclaimed for his prose.
“He focused on the stories of people and told stories that people wanted to hear,” said Masich. “I think it was his innate sense of people and what they were interested in and how to tell a story that made him head-and-shoulders above many other historians of his generation.”