Commentary: Remembering David McCullough, who wrote about the Wright brothers, American history

This Pulitzer Prize winning author wrote biographies on three presidents.

David McCullough (July 7, 1933 – Aug. 7, 2022) diedSunday. He was 89. McCullough probably did more to popularize and disseminate American history than any other writer over the last half century. It took him a long while to write a book, over the course of his sterling career he published 10 of them, including one about Orville and Wilbur Wright.

In 1968 McCullough published his first work of history: “The Johnstown Flood: the Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known.” It got enough good reviews that McCullough decided to quit his day job to become a full-time writer.

The next book was his magnificent 1972 account “The Great Bridge: the Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.” It sold well and the author was on his way to becoming our great popular historian. He followed that one up in 1977 with “The Path Between the Seas: the Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914.”

His 1981 biography of Teddy Roosevelt, “Mornings on Horseback,” won the National Book Award. In 1992 he published his magisterial biography of President Harry S. Truman. “Truman” won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Did you notice his titles were getting shorter?

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By the time he published his biography of John Adams in 2001 he was becoming a household name. Many Americans admired his writing and recognized his majestic voice. He narrated some notable TV programs over the years. Do you remember the Ken Burns PBS series “The Civil War” in 1990? McCullough’s distinctive voice enhanced that series with requisite gravity.

In 2002 “John Adams” had come out in paperback and was about to win another Pulitzer. I got the opportunity to interview McCullough on my radio show. I called him at his hotel in Washington, D.C. When he answered the phone, I became almost speechless as I was in awe. OMG, that voice was the closest thing to the voice of God.

That day he was talkative and warm and appreciative that I had read his book and was so engaged with the material. We had a lively chat. I finally had to end the call because David was expected at the White House. He was in town to meet with President George W. Bush.

ExploreDavid McCullough, Pulitzer-winning historian, dies at 89

The thing which really struck me was that he was very down to earth. He treated me with respect. I admired him for that. I assumed I would never get another chance to interview him. He had become so famous.

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Then in 2015 he published another biography. “The Wright Brothers” became another best-seller and fortune was smiling upon me because the subject matter, our beloved local geniuses who invented powered flight, made it so that the author was coming to Dayton for an event.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

I scored another interview. His voice had gotten softer. He was as sharp as ever. It was such a gift and a privilege to have those conversations with him. You can listen to that final interview I did with David McCullough this Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO (91.3FM).

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.