Capitol Alert

Kevin Starr, California’s premier historian, dead at 76

Former California State Librarian Kevin Starr, the premier historian of the Golden State saga, who chronicled its potential and pitfalls in a widely read series of books, has died. He was 76.

Starr died at a San Francisco hospital Saturday evening following a heart attack, said Sheila Starr, his wife of 53 years.

Starr, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, researched and wrote “America and the California Dream,” a five-volume series that is the definitive account of the California story.

California State Librarian Greg Lucas called Starr “truly, one of a kind.”

“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,” Lucas said in a statement.

Lucas added: “His love for California and his breadth of knowledge about the Golden State’s magic and unique diversity was obvious not just in his speeches and lectures as a professor but also in casual conversation.”

Starr, a San Francisco resident and native, was appointed state librarian by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 and served until 2004 under two more governors, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2006, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush.

“Mourning passing of a dedicated steward of intellectual curiosity, Kevin Starr, State Librarian of CA. Angels guide your journey, friend,” Davis posted on Twitter on Sunday.

“I will never be able to thank him enough for our enlightening conversations about California history and his always prescient advice,” Schwarzenegger posted on Facebook.

In a statement, Gov. Jerry Brown said Starr “captured the spirit of our state and brought to life the characters and personalities that made the California story.”

Mattie Taormina was special assistant to the state librarian when Starr held the post. Starr, she said, traveled across California as part of his job and still found time to research and write books and articles.

“He utilized and maximized every single minute,” said Taormina, director of the California State Library’s Sutro Library in San Francisco. “Dr. Starr made you excited to be a Californian because you were going to create the future California.”

Starr championed a variety of efforts as state librarian. As a boy, Starr had read the newspaper to his visually impaired father, Sheila Starr said. After he became state librarian, he created a statewide service that allowed visually impaired people to call a phone number to connect with someone who would read the news to them.

His office also oversaw the allocation of $350 million in local library construction money after voters approved a statewide library borrowing measure, Proposition 14, in 2000.

Born in 1940, Starr was a seventh-generation Californian. He graduated from University of San Francisco and served two years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed with a tank battalion in West Germany. He attended graduate school at Harvard University and later earned his master’s of library science at UC Berkeley.

“I think he saw the state as a living entity,” said Susan Hildreth, who succeeded Starr as state librarian in mid-2004 and is now a professor at the University of Washington Information School. “He was such a California-phile. He used to say, ‘I would only be a state librarian in California.’ 

Schwarzenegger named Starr the state librarian emeritus upon his retirement. The two, along with first lady Maria Shriver, worked to open the California Museum in the mid-2000s. The museum hosts the California Hall of Fame, in which Starr was enshrined in 2010.

“All around us, we can see signs that California is coming of age,” Starr said of the museum’s creation. “One of those indicators is the fact that we are now honoring those great Californians, past and present, who have helped to create this dynamic society.”

Starr also could be critical of state decision-makers. “Politics as a professional activity in Sacramento is dead. It’s now amateur night,” he said in 2011.

Starr’s latest book, “Continental Ambitions,” was published in November. It chronicles Roman Catholic settlement in North America, with California playing a prominent role.

Starr, a devout Catholic who spent part of his childhood in a Catholic orphanage, had been working on the book since his days as state librarian. He recently left Taormina a voice mail that he had an autographed copy to send her.

“It was very dear to his heart,” she said of the book.

Starr is survived by his wife, two children and seven grandchildren. Services are pending.

Editor’s note: This post was updated several times Jan. 15, 2017 to include more information.