Keynote Speaker David McCullough imparted the wisdom attained by a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and noted historian as it pertained to the conference’s themes of identity, purpose and place Sunday. McCullough weaved snippets of some of his meticulously researched historical subjects and his own personal history to take conference goers on a brisk stroll through what makes America and Americans thrive.
McCullough supported the importance of community by stating that, “I think two of the most important and obvious, but often overlooked, lessons of history are that there’s no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Never was, never will be. And secondly, that very little of consequence is accomplished alone. It’s always a joint effort.”
McCullough used his own success as proof of his belief, crediting editors, archivists, librarians, specialists and most of all, his wife, Rosalee. But McCullough also used as support “the impact of place on the individual’s development, the individual’s outlook on life, the individual’s personality. And so I’ve always felt strongly that it is essential to go to the place where things happened. To go to the place where someone grew up. To the community and learn about that community to see to what extent the person that you’re writing about … has been shaped by that place.”
McCullough grew up in Pittsburgh. During his youth, the city shared a purpose – to buttress the nation’s military during World War II with essentials, like steel and glass. Since then, Steel City has transformed into a glimmering region built on technological innovation, higher education investment, and medical research. He spoke of “the motivating power of purpose,” and its impact on place.
“[Then mayor David L. Lawrence and banking entrepreneur R.K. Mellon] didn’t lie on the floor weeping and whining and blaming other people, blaming the circumstances of the world… they got together to figure out ‘What can we do?’,” McCullough said.
And that “What can we do?” sense of purpose is an important factor in communities developing pride, identity, and place.
McCullough saw a similar situation with the Orville and Wilbur Wright, the subject of his most recent book “The Wright Brothers.” The brothers were brilliant. Even though they never received the formal benefit of a college education (only about 6 percent did at that time, McCullough said), both men were insatiable readers supported by loving, encouraging parents.
“We cannot underestimate the importance of how we’re raised at home,” he said. “The grounding, the sense of right and wrong. Attitude, spirit, attention to detail, civility. It’s learned at home and in the community itself, the neighborhood.”
And for the Wrights, as with most families, the house was just a part of what made the home. The structure was humble with no indoor plumbing, running water or electricity, but it did contain books by great writers and fueled an “intellectual curiosity,” fanned by their parents. Interestingly, McCullough described Dayton as being “a hot bed of invention” where the cash register and step ladder were invented and was the birthplace to more patents than any other part of America at that time. So a solid family plus a town that served as an incubator of ideas spawned two men with no scientific training to “solve a problem that had never been solved by anybody and not only changed the world, but changed history dramatically.”
McCullough said that the Wright brothers created aviation by watching soaring birds on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, N.C., wondering how birds could stay airborne without flapping their wings. They learned that the key was having the wind in your face and not at your back and McCullough shared a passage from Wilbur’s notebook that read: “No bird ever soared in a calm.”
It’s a sentiment that serves as inspiration as foundations navigate adversity to reach new heights and lift our communities.