Kevin Starr, acclaimed California historian, dead at 76
Posted February 16, 2018 7:49 p.m. EST
SAN FRANCISCO -- Kevin Starr, the former state librarian whose encyclopedic, eloquent writings about California made him the premier chronicler of the Golden State's history, died Saturday night of a heart attack in San Francisco. He was 76 years old.
A San Francisco native and most recently a professor at the University of Southern California, Dr. Starr was perhaps best known for his mammoth series of history books, ``Americans and the California Dream.''
The anthology covered California from statehood until the early 2000s, and received critical acclaim not only for its vivid writing and exhaustive research, but also for Dr. Starr's illuminating handling of lesser known aspects of California's past.
``Kevin Starr chronicled the history of California as no one else,'' Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement issued Sunday. ``He captured the spirit of our state and brought to life the characters and personalities that made the California story. His vision, like California itself, was bigger than life.''
Dr. Starr's grasp of details large and small made him ``brilliant'' in class discussions, said fellow USC Professor Dana Gioia, who's also California's poet laureate and a longtime friend of Dr. Starr's.
``Kevin is the preeminent historian of California,'' Gioia said. ``There have been many people over the last 150 years who have written histories of California, but no one has ever discussed California as comprehensively or masterfully as Starr.
''What Starr did was to write about California not only as its own place, but as a symbol of the animating idea of America, and to show how California's rise exemplified the American dream just as the problems of California displayed the difficult issues of the nation.``
As state librarian from 1994 to 2004, Dr. Starr oversaw the State Library, which functions as a research resource for state government and the public, assists local libraries and preserves and collects California artifacts. When he retired from the post, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named him state librarian emeritus.
In his state post, Dr. Starr backed far-reaching library and reading programs, including a 2000 bond measure that authorized $350 million dollars for library construction throughout California. A 2001 state Assembly Bill, known as the Kevin Starr Access to Information Act, improved telephonic reading systems for disabled people who can't read print materials.
Among his broad range of skills, Dr. Starr did a ''terrific job`` telling the stories of the people in California whose roles aren't usually highlighted but wind up being highly relevant, said current California State Librarian Greg Lucas.
''I say 'history book' to most people and their eyes roll, it's an insomnia cure, but his books are page turners,`` Lucas said. ''His mastery of detail, the research that went into those books is awesome. Sometimes it's unbelievable reading them.``
Dr. Starr was born in San Francisco in 1940. He spent part of his childhood living in a Catholic orphanage in Mendocino County, and also lived in the housing projects in Potrero Hill. Dr. Starr attended St. Ignacious High School, then studied at the University of San Francisco, where he became editor in chief of the Foghorn, the campus newspaper.
After graduating from the Jesuit university in 1962, Dr. Starr served as an Army lieutenant for two years and was stationed with a tank battalion in West Germany. Upon completing his military service, Dr. Starr attended Harvard University, where he received a PhD in American Literature.
Dr. Starr started his teaching career at Harvard, according to the California State Library Foundation, and went on to teach at the University of California at Berkeley, UC Riverside, the University of San Francisco and, most recently, the University of Southern California.
In all, Dr. Starr published more than a dozen books, most of them on California's history. His 2010 book, ''Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge,`` heralded the iconic span as a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.
Dr. Starr also worked as a journalist for many years, writing articles for the San Francisco Examiner and The Chronicle.
''No one else has more printed words on the formation of the Golden State, and what it means to the nation and world, than Starr,`` said Mattie Taormina, who worked as Dr. Starr's special assistant at the California State Library for more than eight years.
Taormina, who is now director of the Sutro Library in San Francisco, said Dr. Starr's compassion, wit and humility inspired everyone that knew him.
''He was a presence, he was the kind of force that would fill up a room whenever he came in,`` Taormina said. ''He was such a great mentor, and he was that way not just with me, but with everyone that worked at the library.``
For his work, Dr. Starr received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California, and the Carey McWilliams Award from the California Studies Association. In November 2006, Dr. Starr was awarded a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush.
''California is everything and nothing at all,`` Dr. Starr wrote in The Chronicle in 2003. ''It is the cutting edge of the American dream -- a utopia. But it could also become the paradigm of the dream lost -- a nightmare dystopia.``
San Francisco Museum and Historical Society co-founder Charles Fracchia, who knew Dr. Starr for nearly 60 years, said his friend's hard upbringing drove him to succeed on a ''huge and broad level.``
''His books will not die, they will not go out of fashion, they will be on library shelves as works of literature,`` Fracchia said.
Dr. Starr is survived by his wife, Sheila Starr of San Francisco; two daughters, Jessica Starr of San Francisco and Marian Starr Imperatore; and seven grandchildren.