NEW YORK — David McCullough's latest book project did not begin with a president or a great war. It started with his friendship with Larry H. Miller, the late owner of the Utah Jazz basketball team.
"He was a phenomenal success in business and a success at almost everything he touched. Here's a fellow who had little education, who fairly late in life became interested in American history and interested in how teaching could be improved, a subject close to my heart," McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Maine.
"I helped him set up a summer seminar program for history teachers in Utah, whereby it was made possible to spend several weeks brushing up on history in general. I was invited to lecture at several of the universities in Utah. One thing led to another. Larry became quite ill with diabetes and one of his last wishes to me was to take part in the Christmas concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra."
Miller died in February 2009. In December, McCullough was among the guests at the annual Mormon Tabernacle performance on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where he discussed two Christmas songs, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and their ties to a Christmas Eve ceremony at the White House in 1941, less than three weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt spoke briefly from the White House balcony about celebrating a holiday during wartime, then introduced a surprise guest, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had secretly crossed the Atlantic Ocean to appear with Roosevelt.
"He wasn't even mentioned in the program," McCullough said of Churchill. "He risked his life to be there."
McCullough's talk has just come out in book form, the 56-page "In the Dark Streets Shineth," released by the Salt Lake-based Shadow Mountain Publishing. "Dark Streets" includes a DVD of McCullough's reading with the choir, photographs from the 1941 White House gathering and pictures of World War II soldiers.
Known for such historical works as "Truman" and "John Adams," McCullough has strong memories of the war and personal attachments to both Christmas songs cited. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was a favorite of McCullough's father. "I'll Be Home for Christmas," written during the war by Buck Ram, Kim Gannon and Walter Kent and popularized by Bing Crosby, "still melts me," McCullough says.
"I was still a boy in World War II. I was 11, 12 years old, but old enough to be very aware of what was going on, reading newspapers and knowing that older young men in our neighborhood were away," says the 77-year-old historian, a Pittsburgh native. "There were stars in the window and all of that, so it was a vivid part of my whole life."
McCullough noted in his talk last year that Churchill had never heard "Little Town of Bethlehem," a carol authored by clergyman Phillips Brooks in the 1860s, until the morning following his joint appearance with Roosevelt, when he attended a Christmas service with the president. McCullough noted that Churchill had declared on Christmas Eve that for the holidays "each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly lighted island of happiness and peace."
His wishes unconsciously echoed "Little Town of Bethlehem" and its line, "Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting Light."