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Historian Kevin Starr: A personal memoir

Photograph of former State Librarian Kevin Starr by Andrew Burton.

Photograph of former State Librarian Kevin Starr by Andrew Burton


He was born and grew up in public housing on Potrero Hill. When his parents could no longer take care of him and his brother, he was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Eureka. After a stint as a seminarian he attended St. Ignatius High School, where his Jesuit teachers noticed he could not read well, had his eyes checked, and bought him glasses.

It is a surprising start for what happens next. He attends the University of San Francisco and graduates with honors, does a stint as an officer in the U.S. Army, is given a Danforth Fellowship and attends Harvard University, where he receives a Ph.D. in American literature. Following a teaching stint at Harvard, he returns to San Francisco in 1973, where he becomes a special assistant to Mayor Joseph Alioto and City Librarian.

This protean figure is Kevin Starr, who, during the four and a half decades after his return to San Francisco, became one of the major cultural historians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a journalist and editor, a generous abettor of many authors, an amiable clubman, State Librarian of California and a distinguished professor at the University of Southern California, to which he would commute weekly from his home in San Francisco.

Kevin Starr’s work will last for many decades. His several volumes of America and the California Dream, which has done for California what books by Van Wyck Brooks have done for New England, is a magisterial and monumental grappling with the idea of California — big ideas presented with creative insight and perspicacious analysis.

Even his throwaways, such as his book on the Golden Gate Bridge and a short history of California, showed his intense research and ability to evoke a scene.

The relatively unknown Coast of Dreams, an episodic look at California in the early 21st century, is a masterpiece. It will become one of the must-read books on the state in a snapshot of time.

And then there’s the recently published Continental Ambition, the first volume of a projected four-volume history of the Catholic Church in the United States. Alas, it is not to be. He jokingly said once that he had made a bargain with God to let him finish the four volumes. God had other plans.

It is astonishing that this productive and scholarly life had, as its counterpoint, a lively social life and an almost frenetic club life: the Pacific Union Club, the Bohemian Club (where he was very active in Grove activities), the Olympic Club, the California Club. In addition, every evening and weekend held out social events, lectures he would give, and time with his family.

His condominium at the eastern edge of Pacific Heights and his spiritual home at St. Dominic’s Church anchored him in sanctuaries of peace and contemplation.

I knew Kevin since 1958, when he was a freshman and I a senior at USF. We took Latin and Greek classes together and had countless discussions. We were intimate friends for almost six decades.

He is one of three or four individuals I would want on my desert island. Kevin loved an audience and was never shy about using his stentorian voice to present monologues of his ideas. Despite being center stage, he was never boring.

One of the most heartwarming aspects of Kevin Starr was his love of people and his generosity to them. He would spend hours talking to people at the myriad of events he attended, agree to write forwards to their books or to make connections for them. It was hard to imagine this distinguished scholar, with his numerous honorary degrees and prestigious awards, being so kind to so many people.

San Francisco and the West lost a superb interpreter when he died earlier this year. The world of scholarship and his friends are bereft.

Charles Fracchia, a neighborhood resident, is founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.