Catholic Textbook Project Mourns the Passing of Historian Kevin Starr

Date:         January 18, 2017
Contact:   Karen Walker, media relations
                    949.370.1442 //

For Immediate Release

Catholic Textbook Project Mourns

the Passing of Historian Kevin Starr

Kevin StarrThe Catholic Textbook Project, acclaimed publishers of history textbooks for Catholic schools, mourns the passing of Kevin Star, Ph.D., California State Librarian Emeritus, renown historian, a devout Catholic, and a man of inspiring, genuine intellectual curiosity, wonder and openness to beauty and truth.

“In light of Dr. Starr’s superb intellect and understanding of history and writing, his testimony of highest praise for Catholic Textbook Project’s history textbooks for Catholic schools remains one of our greatest honors,” says Michael Van Hecke, M.Ed., president and founder of Catholic Textbook Project. “Dr. Starr’s significant research on California history continues to provide a rich resource for our own textbook development, especially for our soon-to-be-released Fourth Grade history textbook modules.”

“This carefully researched, beautifully written, and elegantly designed four-volume textbook series at long last gives full weight to the contribution of Roman Catholics across five centuries of North American exploration and settlement,” wrote Kevin Starr, Ph.D., about the history textbooks for Catholic schools published by Catholic Textbook Project. “The saga of France and Spain in this regard is already well known. These wonderful volumes, however, now bring to light the English-speaking Roman Catholic presence in North America and the contributions of Catholics of many backgrounds to the creation and development of the United States.”

Born a fourth-generation San Franciscan and, according to the Sacramento Bee, a seventh-generation Californian, Kevin Starr is the ultimate success story.

At age 6, he and his younger brother were sent to an orphanage in Ukiah, California, after his parents divorced and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Eventually, Starr and his brother returned to the Potrero Hill housing projects of San Francisco, where his mother raised them. There, life was far from easy.  Aiming for a better future, Starr worked two newspaper delivery routes. He credited this work and the strong educational mission of the Catholic Church—attending St. Boniface school in the Tenderloin district, St. Ignatius High School, and the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco—for his self-proclaimed “emancipation” from a hardscrabble upbringing, as he often referred to it.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army, Starr entered Harvard on a fellowship and eventually graduated with a doctorate in American Literature and a passion for history; especially for telling California’s history.  He taught at universities and then returned to the City by the Bay, earning a Masters in Library Science from UC Berkeley while serving as San Francisco’s city librarian.  He taught at numerous California universities, including UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, and finally at the University of Southern California.

It was at Harvard that Dr. Starr discovered his life’s mission, while browsing through the Horace Davis collection of books on California and the Pacific Coast.

“All of a sudden I saw all these California books: diaries, memoirs, journals, histories, bibliographies,” he told The Boston Globe in 2003. “And a kind of enchantment overtook me, a kind of beguilement, a kind of reverie, definitely a physical reaction in the days that followed.”

He added, “As I look back on it psychologically, I see that I’d made an absolutely powerful connection between California and my interior landscape.”
As the New York Times describes the prolific author: “Kevin Starr, whose eight-volume history of California, collectively known as “Americans and the California Dream,” traced the promise and the perils of his native state with a novelist’s sense of narrative and character and a filmmaker’s eye for colorful detail…. “Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915” was published in 1973, to great acclaim. The literary scholar John Seelye, reviewing it in The New York Times, called it “one devil of a fine book, a book only a native Californian could write.”

Over the course of his career, Dr. Starr received numerous awards, including USC Medallion 2005, National Humanities Medalist 2006, Centennial Medalist, GSAS Harvard University 2006, The Robert Kirsch Award 2012, and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2010.

His prolific writings include 14 books, most of them devoted to California history. Former California governors from Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jerry Brown highly praised his work, but Mattie Taormina, a special assistant to the state librarian when Starr held the post, shared more insight into Starr’s self-discipline and passion.

“He utilized and maximized every single minute,” Taormina said, noting that he traveled throughout California for his job as state librarian, yet still found time to research and write books and articles. “Dr. Starr made you excited to be a Californian because you were going to create the future California.”

Taormina also said he created a statewide service allowing visual impaired people to call a phone number to connect with someone who would read the news to them, something that Dr. Starr did for his visually impaired father as a boy.

It’s easy to see why Dr. Starr’s passion for learning, literature and history was contagious, especially for his students and those who worked with him. In a short USC Dornsife interview, Dr. Starr animatedly expounds on his own passions:

“Writing to me is a way of thinking out loud, or thinking on paper; a way of engaging the thought process at the most profound level.

“In terms of writing history, narrative is natural to human beings. Narrative is natural to human beings! We each have our own personal narratives—the story of our life as it unfolds, and sometimes as others help it unfold, or sometimes as accidents happen; so consequently, history is just part of that ongoing narrative.

“I write all the time…I’ve written 14 books of one kind or another, eight of them in the California Dream series. I’ve written about a million words of journalism.  I enjoy research. I enjoy creating the first draft, and then the exquisite pleasure of revision.  The first draft can be painful because you’re formulating your thoughts, but by the time you get to revision you’re able to eliminate your material, polish your material.  Writing is a form of thinking, it’s a form of being, a form of breathing… I wouldn’t know what writer’s block is. I have the opposite of writer’s block…”

Dr. Kevin Starr died of a heart attack January 14, in San Francisco, according to his wife of 53 years, Sheila.

“God bless Dr. Starr and all the good he has done, all the wonder he has inspired, all the high standards and integrity he has modeled and encouraged in his students and readers, during his 76 years on earth,” adds Mr. Van Hecke. “Our prayers are with him, and with his family. May he rest in peace.”

Catholic Textbook Project currently publishes five history textbooks for grade range 5-12, which are in use in schools in more than 60 dioceses nationwide and also internationally.  For more information, visit or call 1-888-610-3354.

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