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July 13, 2013

Pittsburgh’s top ambassador: ‘Johnstown Flood’ author David McCullough earns recognition in his hometown

PITTSBURGH — Even when he created cartoons and caricatures at Shady Side Academy, David McCullough showed promise.

And when a teacher assigned his class to write about what they saw while walking to school, McCullough’s essay showed keen observation and writing skills, said his brother George, who lives near Schenley Park.

“She knew he was going to be a writer,” said George McCullough, 84, who still works at the McCullough Electric Co. their grandfather founded.

On July 7, his 80th birthday, David McCullough’s history became formally entwined with Pittsburgh’s in a ceremony to rename the 16th Street Bridge the David McCullough Bridge. The bridge across the Allegheny River was built in 1923 to connect the Strip District with the historic H.J. Heinz plant.

“I’m over the moon, to be honored in such a way in your own hometown,” McCullough told the Tribune-Review in an interview.

The author and historian, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, a pair of National Book Awards and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, planned to take 40 family members and friends on a bus tour of places of his youth – among them, the city’s East End, Linden Avenue School and Rolling Rock Club, where he and his wife, Rosalee, went on their first date.

McCullough, who lives in West Tisbury, Mass., remains one of Pittsburgh’s top ambassadors, talking up the city wherever he goes, said Andy Masich, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center.

“My kids all kid the daylights out of me about that,” McCullough said. “But Pittsburgh is a major part of the American story.”

McCullough’s first book, “The Johnstown Flood,” published in 1968, chronicled the May 31, 1889, flood that killed more than 2,000 people in Johns-town. Since its debut, McCullough has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received 47 honorary degrees.

His body of work is published in 15 languages, and in all, more than 10 million copies are in print, said publisher Simon & Schuster. His most recent, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” tells the story of artists, writers, doctors, politicians and architects in the years between 1830 and 1900.

In May, Simon & Schuster printed an anniversary edition hardcover of McCullough’s “The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Yet despite his books on great moments and great people in history, McCullough laments that Americans are historically illiterate.

“There is more awareness of the problem, but it’s not getting better,” he said.

A different world

As a boy, McCullough attended Linden Avenue School and Shady Side Academy, which dedicated the David McCullough ’51 Archival Gallery during its 125th anniversary in 2009.

He recalls his days at the then-all-boys school as a different time, a different world. The school went coed in 1973.

At the opulent Nixon Theater on Sixth Avenue, downtown – now the site of the Regional Enterprise Tower – he saw Marlon Brando perform onstage in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Frank Fay in “Harvey.” At a roadhouse called Johnny Green’s, he heard Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald perform.

One of four sons of Christian Hax McCullough and his wife, Ruth, David McCullough went on to Yale University and married Rosalee, whom he calls editor-in-chief, “Mission Control,” best friend and by far, best dancer. They have five children and 19 grandchildren.

As a teenager, McCullough was part of a group that dubbed itself “The Sexy Six,” said longtime friend George Kennedy, 80, of Indianapolis.

“We all went to the same dance class. We were a little egotistical,” Kennedy said with a laugh.

An accomplished artist, McCullough drew cartoons in high school that were popular, said George McCullough.

“We come from a very strong family. That meant dinner around the table every night,” he said.

Masich calls McCullough, who is working on a book about the Wright brothers, “a triple threat.”

“He can paint pictures with words, he can paint pictures with colors, and he has the voice. ... He is a great communicator. I can’t think of a person who is more universally admired.”

When he paints, McCullough typically chooses watercolors to paint landscapes, still lifes and architecture.

Drawing made him happy even at a young age, said friends who thought art would be his first career choice.

“His fingers get twitching, and he starts drawing, and he’s laughing, giggling,” said David Hiles of Naples, Fla., a classmate at Shady Side Academy.

For the senior prom, McCullough designed life-sized caricatures of all the Shady Side teachers and placed them in the gymnasium, said Hiles.

Power and humility

When Allegheny County Council approved the name change for the bridge in December, county officials said the honor was befitting “Western Pennsylvania’s best ambassador and America’s favorite historian.”

“Obviously, we’re very, very proud of him,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a fan.

Despite the trappings of his success, McCullough’s personality has not changed much over the years, friends said.

“He is genuine,” said Pete Pressly McCance of Williamsburg, Va., a member of the Sexy Six.

“He enjoys tremendously being famous without being arrogant,” said William Hill, 79, of Harmar, who claims their friendship started when they were crib mates.

His wife has learned to take his accolades in stride.

“I just let him speak his piece, and then we go about the business of the day,” she said.

McCullough admits the excitement has taken a toll.

“I haven’t slept very well for about five nights,” he said during a drive across the bridge that would bear his name. “This is monumental. If I had to pick one thing to have my name on, it would be a bridge, and in this town.”

Decades after their first meeting, Hiles remembers the upbeat guy with a big grin who befriended him when he moved to Pittsburgh from Chicago.

“He was a person I looked up to,” Hiles said. “There is a power in that man and a humility about him.”

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