David McCullough, perhaps the most preeminent American historian of my generation, died yesterday at age 89. The author of ten books and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, his books covered the broad swath of the fabric of our country—and he wrote every one of them not on a word processor or computer, but on a 1946 Royal KMM manual typewriter. When asked why he worked on so antiquated a machine, he conceded that using a computer would allow him to write faster, but he said that in writing slower he had more time to think about what he wanted to compose.
Almost 25 years ago I attended a congressional bipartisan retreat (these days, the concept of a congressional "bipartisan" anything sounds anachronistic). The guest speaker was McCullough, who at the time had received recently the Pulitzer Prize for his biography on President Harry S Truman. When I asked McCullough to autograph my copy of his book, I mentioned with a grin that I was pleased to meet "a fellow Truman scholar." Turning serious, he asked if I had written a Truman book, too. I laughed and told him no, and then I explained that I had written an article in the early 1990s for American Heritage magazine (later republished in Reader's Digest in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Truman's accession to the presidency) . My article told the story of how old Harry had helped me with my seventh grade homework project, and in so doing he settled forever (in a letter that he had written to me) the historical dispute as to whether his middle initial "S" did or did not get a period.
McCullough's eyes brightened. "The 'homework' story in American Heritage!" he said with a touch of excitement. "Truman wrote to you and explained about the S in his middle name! I not only read your article, but it helped me win a bet on that issue!"
It seems that when Harry Truman took the time to help a young admirer with his junior high homework assignment long ago, both David McCullough and I came out as winners.
I reconnected with McCullough a few years ago, and he surprised me with a box filled with inscribed copies of some of his most famed works. Those volumes rest tonight in an honored place in the library of a grateful fan who has spent countless hours enjoying his enduring books.
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