Kevin Starr was by no means a household name in California, having nowhere close to the high profiles of the state’s entertainers, sports figures and politicians.
However, the outpouring of respect, admiration and genuine affection after Starr’s untimely death Saturday attests to his unparalleled standing among those who appreciate California’s unique evolution from a backwater of the Spanish empire to a society with global economic power and cultural impact.
Starr, a native son who rose from poverty to become the state’s premier historian, not only loved California but understood it like no other. He conveyed both that affection and that knowledge in a series of well-researched and well-written books that should be required reading for anyone who hopes to grasp the state’s place in humankind.
Gov. Jerry Brown said it well, that Starr “captured the spirit of our state and brought to life the characters and personalities that made the California story.”
What made Starr’s lifework particularly valuable and enduring was his insistence on unflinchingly telling the bad as well as the good, and his seeing California not as a finished product but – accurately – as a continuous work in progress, understanding that the only constant about California is that it constantly evolves.
Nor was Starr an ivory tower academic. He not only wrote flowing narrative, making California’s colorful history jump out of the pages with a sense of you-are-there intimacy and immediacy, but delivered equally compelling lectures.
Moreover, he was involved in public life himself, including a remarkable stint as the state librarian.
As the current librarian, former journalist Greg Lucas, put it: “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 conversations.”
This writer can attest to that and also to Starr’s continuing interest in the state’s political evolution, and his concerns about whether its contemporary politicians were capable of dealing with California’s many difficult issues, ranging from water to public education.
“Politics as a professional activity is dead,” he said in 2011. “It’s now amateur night.”
One incident demonstrates just how involved in politics Starr could become. In the late 1980s, he became the public face of a campaign to reject a ballot measure for construction of a new baseball park in San Francisco.
The city’s political leaders who were sponsoring the measure were incensed that it lost and tried to criminally prosecute Starr and several other opponents, who believed – perhaps wrongly – that the city’s Candlestick Park should be refurbished instead.
One would have hoped that Starr would stick around for another couple of decades to continue his exploration of “America and the California Dream,” as his five-volume series of books about the state’s history is called. Alas, he was felled by a heart attack at age 76.
Now one wonders whether there’s anyone out there to pick up where he left off.