DAVID L. GARCIA
Two weeks before classes reconvened at USF, California lost one of its most celebrated historians. Kevin Starr, former state librarian, USF alumnus and author of the acclaimed series of historical books, “Americans and the California Dream,” died of a heart attack in San Francisco on Jan. 14. He was 76 years old.
Starr was a rare fourth-generation Californian, his Irish ancestors having arrived in California just two years after it became a state. Starr was born in San Francisco in 1940. His life began with difficulty: his parents divorced when he was young and he was sent to an orphanage in Mendocino County. Starr eventually returned to the city at 14, living with his mother in public housing in Potrero Hill and attending St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin.
Starr went on to enroll at the University of San Francisco, graduating with a B.A. in history in 1962. While on campus, he worked as the editor of the San Francisco Foghorn. He served in the Army for a brief time before attending Harvard University, where he received his M.A. and his Ph.D. in American Literature.
Starr published his first book in the “California Dream” series in 1973. The vigorously researched series would grow to include eight volumes, each covering a different era of California’s history, from its entrance into the Union in 1850 all the way to the internet boom of the 1990s. The widely praised books zeroed in on key moments and influential Californians who shaped the state’s politics, culture and economy. Using his encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s past and his talent for storytelling, Starr was able to inform Californians about little-known aspects of their own history.
In 1994, Starr was named state librarian by Gov. Pete Wilson and would serve in the post for ten years. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger went on to name him state librarian emeritus in 2004.
In a statement released after Starr’s death, current California State Librarian Greg Lucas praised his predecessor, saying “No other historian has been able to capture California’s exceptionalism, its vitality and its promise in such detail and yet invest it with the immediacy and excitement of a page-turner novel.”
Governor Jerry Brown also spoke kindly about Starr. He said in a statement, “Kevin Starr chronicled the history of California as no one else. 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.”
Starr taught extensively at colleges across California, including USF, Stanford, UC Berkeley and UC Davis. His longest professorial post was at the University of Southern California, where he served as a professor of history. His writings earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California. He was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2010.
Starr is survived by his wife, two children and seven grandchildren. Services were held in St. Ignatius church on Friday, Jan. 27.
Photo Courtesy of Hursh Karkhanis/ Foghorn