Chime In Remembering David McCullough, a ‘Tour Guide to the Past’ Stories You May Like When Is a Cornell Sweatshirt Not Just a Cornell Sweatshirt? Quelle Surprise! The Hidden Benefits of My French Lit Major The Healing Power of Music As a visiting professor on the Hill in the ’80s, the eminent historian greatly influenced the way I look at the world By Karl Johnson ’89, MS ’00, PhD ’10 Shortly after graduating from Cornell, I served for a single day as a substitute history teacher. Delving into the details of the Civil War, I organized the lesson around a theme. “There’s no such thing as the past,” I said. “There is only someone else’s present.” Those words were not my own, but rather the refrain of the last history class I took at Cornell. The visiting professor who held court twice weekly in Goldwin Smith Hall was the late David McCullough. “Americans in Profile” was at once captivating and unconventional, and largely for the same reason—the syllabus consisted primarily of biographical sketches. Although he later won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, McCullough—who passed away a few months ago, in August 2022—did not start out as a biographer. He did not even start out as a historian. Unable to find a satisfying book about the Johnstown Flood, which took place near his native Pittsburgh, he set out “to write the book I wanted to read.” He wrote in the evenings while working a full-time day job. When asked by publishers to follow up with works on the Chicago Fire and San Francisco Earthquake, he resolved rather to focus on great human achievements, which he did with big books on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. Years later, I was reading 1776 when my children were trying to get my attention. “Just a minute,” I said, “the war is not quite over, and I’m not sure who is going to win.” This element of suspense was not merely a stylistic achievement. McCullough’s narratives are grounded in a deep conviction regarding the contingency of history. This was personal for him—he had no advanced degrees and so described himself as an “accidental historian.” McCullough’s narratives are grounded in a deep conviction regarding the contingency of history. Whether speaking of the presidential elections or the development of jazz, his mantra was always the same: “It didn’t have to happen this way.” While narrating the end of the Cold War for us as it unfolded, he hammered on the role of courage and human decision-making. This emphasis on human agency endeared him to his students and readers alike, and surely contributed to his turn toward the craft of biography, an emerging interest that was on full display during his brief tenure at Cornell. He treated us to deep dives into the lives of complicated characters ranging from Louis Agassiz and Lena Horne to George Gershwin and the Wyeth family. Stories You May Like When Is a Cornell Sweatshirt Not Just a Cornell Sweatshirt? Quelle Surprise! The Hidden Benefits of My French Lit Major Tellingly, one of McCullough’s favorite quotes—a line from Joseph Addison’s 18th-century play Cato—was “We can’t guarantee success. We can do something better; we can deserve it.” McCullough at the 2019 National Book Festival. (Shawn Miller / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons) In other words, he elaborated, “the outcome of what happens is in the hands of God; it’s out of our hands. But how we behave, how we perform, how we measure up—that’s something we can control. Or to put it another way: if we are in a noble cause, even if that cause is doomed to failure, let’s fail nobly.” When a friend once asked me if I judged my college education worth the cost, I reflected on the ways that McCullough’s words and wisdom have come back to me over the years. To this day I see the Brooklyn Bridge as he taught us to see it, a “grand harmony of opposite forces—the steel of the cables in tension, the granite of the towers in compression.” His subtle nudge to be open to the element of surprise in our vocational journeys also proved prescient. At the age of 40, despite not holding any divinity degrees, I became a campus minister through Cornell United Religious Work—an “accidental chaplain.” When in 2020 I was asked to officiate at the funeral of President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes, nobody was more surprised than me. When a friend once asked me if I judged my college education worth the cost, I reflected on the ways that McCullough’s words and wisdom have come back to me over the years. One week after that initial teaching stint, I ran into the person for whom I was substituting. “You know what the students told me?” he said. “There’s no such thing as the past. There is only someone else’s present.” Although McCollough’s winsome, baritone voice is no longer among us, one can hope that his words and wisdom will echo among his readers and students. Today, my son is at Cornell amidst what some are now calling the “end of the end” of the Cold War—a reminder that the events I experienced as the present are now someone else’s history. And as I find myself wondering whether the tuition can be justified, I can hope that he’ll encounter equally inspiring tour guides to the past among the faculty. Karl Johnson ’89, MS ’00, PhD ’10, is the founder and former executive director of Chesterton House, a Christian study center affiliated with Cornell United Religious Work. In his previous role at Cornell Outdoor Education, he designed the Hoffman Challenge Course. He is the proud namesake of the COE yurt on Mt. Pleasant. (Johnson portrait provided.) Published January 4, 2023 Comments Krista Reid, Class of 1990 10 Jan, 2023 I was lucky enough to take David’s class and a class with George McGovern while at Cornell. What I learned about history, the viewing and the writing of it I still carry with me today. He was a national treasure and will be greatly missed. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Reply David Moriah, Class of 1972 10 Jan, 2023 Thank you for an enjoyable read on a great American biographer and historian, even without that academic imprimatur of intellectual gravitas known as the “advanced degree”. l I had no idea McCullough wrote on such a wide range of topics, from jazz to the Brooklyn Bridge and back to towering historical figures. The span of his work brings to mind the versatile film documentarian Ken Burns. Btw, I happen to know the writer of this piece, Dr. Karl Johnson, a fine scholar and a versatile figure himself. In addition to being a one-day substitute history teacher he also sold encyclopedias door-to-door, and along with inspiring an eponymous yurt at Cornell Outdoor Education’s Hoffman Challenge Course atop Mt. Pleasant, there is also an outhouse bearing his name on the Finger Lakes Trail named in recognition of his service in trail maintenance. Thank you Karl and the Cornellian for brightening my day. Reply Karl Johnson, Class of 1989 11 Jan, 2023 Thank you Dave. In 1989 McCullough had already been serving as host of the American Experience, but at the time I don’t think many of us had much awareness of his public profile, which of course grew tremendously in subsequent years. Apparently in the 1970s he was even less well known, as evidenced by his appearance on To Tell the Truth – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87vg2x99pg4 Reply Richard Stewart, Class of 1965 15 Jan, 2023 Remarkable writer. Still can not believe how riveting it was to read of the building of a “Bridge” Reply John Weisenfeld 16 Jan, 2023 Some people share books that they like, some people share authors. In so doing, of course, they open wide vistas of rumination, reflection and respect. Adding anything by McCullough to my wish list of audio books for this year. May we all not only experience success in 2023, but more importantly be worthy of it. Thanks, Karl. Reply Leave a Comment Cancel replyOnce your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *Comment * Name * Class Year Email * Save my name, email, and class year in this browser for the next time I comment. Δ Other stories You may like Ask the Expert What Is Mindfulness, and How Can It Help You? A Psychologist Explains Chime In In Praise of Schmoozing Campus & Beyond What’s Tiny, Bookish, and Made of Bricks? Lego Olin Library!