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HINGHAM – Author David McCullough called numerous places home: Pittsburgh, where he was born. Washington, D.C., where he worked for American Heritage magazine and wrote his first books. Martha’s Vineyard and Boston’s Back Bay, where he wrote more and won two Pulitzer Prizes. And then he settled in Hingham.
McCullough and his beloved wife, Rosalee, were well acquainted with the South Shore by the time they bought a handsome, 1799 frame house in Hingham and moved there in late 2016. Hingham was already home, in a way: Three of their five children lived in town with their families at the time. In years past, McCullough stopped by his then-young grandchildren’s elementary school classes. He spoke to students and teachers at Hingham High assemblies, as he continued to do so after he and Rosalee became town residents.
McCullough died Sunday, Aug. 7 in Hingham, according to his publisher, Simon & Schuster. He died less than two months after Rosalee.
McCullough became a familiar figure around Quincy in the late 1990s, as he completed his research and writing for his Pulitzer Prize-winning, 2001 biography of John Adams, our second president. He spent a lot of time at the Adams National Historical Site, and he sought out the other places in John and Abigail’s life. On one of those excursions he stood on the Quincy Bay shore, imagining the 1778 scene when Adams and his young son John Quincy took a skiff out to a frigate that carried them to France, where Adams would negotiate the Continental Congress’s crucial wartime alliance.
After his “John Adams” bestseller was published, he told local audiences that Adams had written the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution – the model for the U.S. Constitution – at his first Quincy home, on what is now Franklin Street. He relished pointing in that direction, adding, “And he did it right over there.”
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In the years that followed, he attended birthday ceremonies for Adams and his presidential son at the United First Parish Unitarian Church, the “Church of the Presidents” in Quincy Center. He spoke at a fundraiser for the Thomas Crane Public Library. He made his last such appearance in the city in September 2018, at the dedication of the new Hancock-Adams Common.
Speaking of Adams, John Hancock and other historical figures, McCullough said, “If they’re not forgotten, they’re not gone.”
In a 2017 Patriot Ledger interview, McCullough said a visit to his and Rosalee’s newly purchased Hingham home inspired him to gather the lectures and speeches for his collection “The American Spirit.” As they walked around the yard in early 2016, while renovations proceeded, he pondered the bitter presidential campaign already underway between Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
He said he hoped the compact volume would speak to “the better spirit of the American people.” The collection was published in the spring of 2017, months after Trump’s shocking upset win. It proved to be his commentary on the nation’s four-year test of democracy.
As he and Rosalee settled into life in Hingham, McCullough said he savored being able to walk to his barbershop and Hingham Harbor. When he explored his own family history, he was delighted to discover that five of his ancestors had lived in Hingham centuries earlier, before they traveled west. “I’ve come full circle,” he said.
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He completed his last book in Hingham.
“The Pioneers” is a history of America’s first expansion, into the Old Northwest Territory created by Congress in 1787. McCullough enjoyed telling visitors about the Rev. Manasseh Cutler, a North Shore minister who played a crucial role in getting the legislation passed, and about the settlers who built eastern Ohio towns, which he said look like the Massachusetts towns they’d left behind.
He wrote “The Pioneers” in a small, cottage-style building the McCulloughs added behind the house. McCullough worked in the back corner of the book-lined, rear room, composing the first draft on his beloved 1940 Royal typewriter. He wrote the “John Adams” biography and all his other books on the Royal, which he bought second-hand when he was 32. He joked that if he quit using it, “it would quit writing my books.”
He was a talented watercolor and pen-and-ink artist too. Some of his works decorate the house. He enjoyed singing Great American Songbook standards from memory, and delighted in gathering his children and grandchildren on the capacious back porch. For them, he wasn’t the Pulitzer-winning author who spoke to a 1989 joint session of Congress, hosted the PBS series “The American Experience” and narrated Ken Burns’ Civil War film series. He was the attentive grandfather who always had a question for them, about school, their post-graduate work, and the podcast one of them started. (For which he was the first interview.)
Those who knew McCullough well, knew that’s who he always was. The public author and the private man were one and the same – good-humored, gracious, generous in spirit. (He always said Rosalee was “my editor-in-chief.”) He was a Yale graduate and a fierce advocate for public libraries, public education, and the study of history – because, as he often said, if we don’t know our history, we don’t know who we are. Scrupulously nonpartisan through his long career as one of America’s men of letters, he broke his silence in 2016 to denounce Trump as a dangerous demagogue. He celebrated Joe Biden’s 2020 election as a hopeful turn back to the country he loved.
Not long after Trump’s election, he worried that America’s citizens had become “a nation of spectators” with little interest in their history.
“History matters,” he said. “It’s essential to understand our nation’s story, the good and the bad, the high accomplishments and the skulduggery. And so much of our story has yet to be told.”
That was McCullough’s story, for as long as he could tell it.
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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: For the late David McCullough, the South Shore became home