David McCullough Tells the Story of the Wright Brothers
Pulitzer Prize Winner Is Drew Forum’s Featured Speaker.
November 2015 – In the shorthand of history, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s astounding contribution to the modern age has been reduced to a few black-and-white photographs and a date on a textbook timeline: Dec. 17, 1903, the first sustained piloted flight in a powered airplane.
For most, knowledge of the famed brothers begins and ends on the windswept dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Yet that epic event, said historian David McCullough, “is about one half of one percent of the story.” McCullough shared a bit of the rest to a crowd of more than 850 at Drew University on Nov. 4.
McCullough, on campus to discuss his latest book, The Wright Brothers, as part of the Drew Forum lecture series, was sponsored by the Thomas H. Kean Visiting Lectureship in History and Political Science (see reception photos below). For decades now, the Pulitzer Prize winner has labored to fill in the yawning gaps in the life stories of some of the most recognizable yet still-obscure figures in American history, including George Washington, John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Now he has tackled the two cleverest bicycle mechanics to ever pick up a pair of pliers.
Dressed in a blue blazer, red-striped tie and khakis, the 82-year-old author, standing on stage behind a presidential-looking lectern, shared some of his favorite anecdotes about the brothers in an extemporaneous talk that stretched for more than an hour.
Had Wilbur Wright not had his upper teeth knocked out in a hockey game when he was 18 years old—to cite one of the more colorful examples—he and his brother might never have flown. Afterward, a traumatized Wilbur holed himself up in his room for the better part of three years. It was during this trying, reclusive period that he developed an intense curiosity about ornithology and gliding birds.
“It was the great swerve in his life,” McCullough said.
Those acquainted with McCullough’s exhaustive research habits know that unearthing such a gem only makes him dig deeper. He got to wondering, who delivered the fateful blow?
In the private diary of their father, Milton Wright, he found the answer. It was a 15-year-old neighborhood bully who went on to become one of the most notorious mass murderers in Ohio history, having killed his parents, brother and 12 others. McCullough also discovered that a local druggist had prescribed cocaine to treat the boy’s own teeth pain.
These rich, intimate, “Honey, listen to this” details are what make loyal readers of this masterful storyteller feel as if they truly know his subjects, as opposed to just knowing about them.
“There’s no harm done to history,” McCullough is fond of saying, “by making it interesting.”