SCM-Fall15-Nameplate

Larger Than Life

Larger Than Life

By Steven Boyd Saum

Admired from the Golden Gate to the Sierra to SoCal: Kevin Starr “was the greatest historian Los Angeles and California ever had and ever will have,” surmised former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan ’52. Photo by Michael Macor for the San Francisco Chronicle
Larger than life only begins to describe Kevin Starr, arguably the greatest California historian, period. He wrote the most comprehensive history of the place. He served as State Librarian of California. We were blessed to have him teach here on the Mission campus. Santa Clara also honored him with a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, in 1995. He was proud to be an honorary Bronco.

He was a man of towering intellect and immense generosity of spirit. He wrote (and could he write!) a sweeping eight- volume history of the Golden State, the Americans and the California Dream series: Gold Rush to Progressive Era to a Silicon Valley-fueled Coast of Dreams. “I grew up in California, a fourth-generation Californian,” he said, “but I discovered California as the theme for history as a graduate student at Harvard, which meant that I perceived this history from a national and comparative perspective.” American history, only moreso.

His story: Born Sept. 3, 1940, in San Francisco. His parents divorced when he was a child and his mother had a nervous breakdown when he was 6; he and younger brother James were placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Ukiah, California. Five years later they returned home—living, on welfare, with their mother in public housing in San Francisco. He took two paper routes.

He was schooled at St. Ignatius College Prep and the University of San Francisco. He served as a lieutenant with a tank battalion in West Germany. He wrote for a newspaper and worked as a political aide to SF Mayor Joe Alioto. He earned a master’s in library science at Cal and became San Francisco city librarian, then state librarian.

He wed; he and wife Sheila were blessed with 50 years together (and two daughters, Jessica Starr and Marian Starr Imperatore, and seven grandchildren). He taught: beyond SCU, at Cal, UC Riverside, Stanford, and as university professor of history at USC. He was honored: with a Guggenheim Fellowship and a gold medal in the California Book Awards, presented by The Commonwealth Club of California.

He was at work on a new multivolume epic. The first volume, Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience—was published in 2016 by Ignatian Press and chronicles the role of Spain, France, and Catholic England. “It’s how these particular cultures came into the New World during the colonial period,” he said. It is an epic project, as was his life.

Gov. Jerry Brown ’59 said, “Kevin Starr chronicled the history of California as no one else”—capturing the play of people and historical forces.

Poet Laureate of California Dana Gioia composed a eulogy in verse for Starr. Let some of his words conclude our farewell:

          He was not only a great intellectual figure.
                    Kevin Starr was—for decades—
                            the living memory of California.

comments powered by Disqus