Dubroff: David McCullough made an impression on the South Coast
It was not his engaging and insightful talk at the inaugural Westmont College breakfast in February 2005 that made me a David McCullough fan.
It was a casual meeting on State Street the morning after his speech. I noticed him walking toward me with his wife and I acknowledged him with a nod and said, “good talk.” He nodded and we walked on.
And then he turned around and said, “Say, can I ask you a question?”
I said “Sure.”
“Do you know any place that will cash my check from my bank on Martha’s Vineyard on a Saturday? Rosalee and I are here for the weekend, and I want some spending money.”
I thought about it for a second. And then Ona, my wife, spoke up.
“Why don’t you get cash out of the Santa Barbara Bank & Trust ATM, and he can write you a check?”
Rosalee nodded her head. So, we paraded around the block to the ATM, which happened to be next door to the office of the Pacific Coast Business Times. I explained my role as founder, and McCullough beamed.
“When I start a new book, I always visit the local newspaper,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can find out.”
From then on, I made a point to stop in every time he spoke in the region, and he often recognized me, with a smile and a wave, as “that guy from Santa Barbara.”
It was clear that David McCullough loved the Central Coast, and he enjoyed speaking again in Santa Barbara and later in Thousand Oaks.
But, as I learned later, he did most of his writing in an 8-by-10-foot shed in the back yard of his summer home on the Vineyard. He died Aug. 7 at home in Hingham, Massachusetts, at age 89. Rosalee, who he described as his most important editor, died in June.
In his talks, McCullough was transparent about writing as a process. He described writing as “90% thinking.” He had masterful powers of concentration, which allowed him to create a scene out of which dialogue and action flowed naturally. There was an elegant engagement about his writing that was very different — and inspirational.
In his Revolutionary War books – “John Adams” and “1776” – he conveyed that sense of the uncertainty about the future that accompanied America’s great experiment with independence. Having the courage to lead in a time when outcomes are not clear was one of the themes of his talk that Friday morning at Westmont.
And picking up the newspaper in recent days I realized just how much of that uncertainty is embedded in our fragmented politics of the 21st century. What I will miss most of all is McCullough’s deep, reassuring voice being there to tell us that it will turn out all right in the end.
For me, McCullough’s voice has been more than the narrator in “Seabiscuit” or Ken Burn’s PBS series on the Civil War. As a boy who lived in Trenton, New Jersey for several years, his book on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Trenton-based Roebling steel works that built the cables had a special resonance.
In “1776,” he put context to the lazy summer picnics at the parks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that commemorated Washington’s daring crossing of the Delaware River on the night of Dec. 25-26, 1776.
That February talk 17 years ago put Westmont on a journey to discover what makes for great leadership in any century. Subsequent speakers have included columnists Thomas Friedman and Peggy Noonan, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, and in post-COVID times, author Michael Lewis gave the 2022 talk.
The once-a-year discussion has been expanded under President Gayle Beebe, to become an important seminar for talking about leadership in a troubled time. David McCullough had a way of leading without commanding, teaching without lecturing. He left a lasting impact on me, on Westmont and on the region.
• Henry Dubroff is owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.