“Do what you really want to do,” author David McCullough told students on October 19 at long assembly. “A good life is a life with a mission.” Nobles welcomed McCullough, who wrote this year’s community book, The Wright Brothers, and is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “What you do is more important than the money [you make]. What’s important is that you have purpose,” he said.
In The Wright Brothers, which chronicles the lives of Ohio brothers Wilbur and Orville, McCullough reveals how a traumatic injury heightened Wilbur’s fascination with ornithology and the possibility of building a flying machine. Other books by McCullough include The Johnstown Flood, Truman and John Adams among many others. He is also well-known for hosting PBS’s American Experience and narrating Ken Burns’ documentaries, including The Civil War.
“History is about life. It is about far more than politics and war,” McCullough said. “It is [everything] human,” He also talked to the Nobles community about his research and process for writing histories. “I’m not just a writer. I am a re-writer.”
McCullough also spoke of the importance of cultivating curiosity and of reading. “We are what we read, more than you realize,” he said. He asked students to “read above yourself”—selecting material that it challenging and beyond the ordinary.
Many of McCullough’s subjects have been Americans whose storied lives and contributions offer not only compelling historical perspectives but also lessons on how to live well. McCullough urged students to do the following: learn to use the English language well; be modest (“don’t get too big for your breeches”); be loyal to your ethics, your family, your country; don’t belittle others; listen; and have ideas.
“Information isn’t learning,” he told students. "If you memorized the World Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated. You’d be weird.
“I recommend a good early morning walk [to prompt new ideas]. I don’t have answers; I have questions. I have curiosity.” McCullough urged students, no matter their ultimate intention, to study the liberal arts and to take courses in writing and the visual arts. He quoted Dickens, who commanded, “Make me see.” Pay attention to sight, sound, feeling and time, McCullough said. Go to the places you are researching and talk to the people, he urged, noting his time spent in Missouri when researching Truman and in Ohio when learning about the Wright brothers.
McCullough also talked about luck, and said that when bad luck strikes (as it often does), it can be turned around. “Make good luck happen by not giving up.” He recounted Wilbur Wright’s swerve, which could have been catastrophic—the head injury and subsequent depression crushed his chance at higher education—but instead allowed him to pursue and achieve the dream of flying.
“Wilbur’s mind reached very far,” he said, then quoted from Wilbur’s diary: “’No bird soars in a calm.’”