Editorial | McCullough and Johnstown have shared a relationship of mutual benefit | New
David McCullough’s incredible writing career – telling the stories of historical figures ranging from Founding Father John Adams to the Wright Brothers, and important landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal – began in Johnstown, and the he author and the city have enjoyed a deeply meaningful relationship from the beginning.
We were saddened to learn that McCullough, 89 – whose first book, ‘The Johnstown Flood’, was published in 1968 – died at his home in Massachusetts on Sunday.
But what a magical journey this man and our community have taken together for more than five decades.
During his 2011 visit to receive the Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s Heritage Preservation Award, McCullough said he was “back to where it all began.”
Of “The Johnstown Flood” – built on interviews with survivors of that tragedy and information gleaned from the archives of The Tribune-Democrat – McCullough then said:
“It made my career. It made my job. It was my debut. … I’m extremely grateful for this subject, for this city, for this story.
When the book was published in 1968, McCullough’s contributions to the city were just beginning – though he would go on to write nine more historical accounts, win numerous awards, and lend his voice to television and film.
As we have reported over the years, McCullough:
• Assisted in the production of the Oscar-winning documentary film commissioned for the Johnstown Museum.
• Was keynote speaker at the Heritage Association Flood Centenary events in 1989.
• Joint efforts to convince the leaders of Bethlehem Steel Corp. not to demolish the historic buildings of the old Cambria Iron complex, including the late 1800s blacksmith shop that now houses the Center for Metal Arts.
• Recorded an interview in 2017 to support JAHA’s $2.5 million fundraising campaign for Johnstown Flood Museum renovations.
Certainly, the existence of the museum can be linked to McCullough’s best-selling book – which had sold 500,000 copies by its 50th anniversary in 2018.
JAHA President Richard Burkert said it is no coincidence that the release of “The Johnstown Flood” in 1968 predated the formation of the Johnstown Flood Museum Association in 1971 and the opening of the museum in 1973.
“Johnstown did a lot for McCullough, and McCullough did a lot for Johnstown’s legacy,” Burkert said in 2018. “It really launched his career. He went on to have a very accomplished career.
“People found out about McCullough because of this story. And, likewise, her telling brought that story back into the public understanding because it had really all but disappeared by the late ’60s.”
Since McCullough, a Pittsburgh native, first arrived in Johnstown, the area has developed a strong cultural tourism industry, with trails connecting important sites that regularly bring thousands of people to the area.
Former Tribune-Democrat publisher Richard Mayer, chairman of the 1889 Flood Centennial Committee, said of McCullough:
“Because he was such a good author and the book sold so well in the marketplace, more and more people became interested in Johnstown. … All over the United States and around the world, people were talking about Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Yes, the bestselling author owes a lot to Johnstown for helping launch his career.
But he has rewarded our community time and time again by telling our story to the world and supporting efforts to preserve our cultural heritage for future generations.
We would strongly support an effort to permanently honor McCullough in Johnstown for his contributions to the city.