David McCullough’s The Great Bridge (608 pages) was first read some 40 years ago by anyone interested in major achievements of American enterprise. And also by students of structural engineering who devoured narrative history. In 1870 this country believed that all things were possible through the application of vision, collaboration and determination. The Brooklyn Bridge story was another defining step in an era of optimistic outlooks and accomplishments.
McCullough, distinguished historian, has won two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, and has received more than 50 honorary degrees. His most recent best-selling work is The American Spirit (Who We Are and What We Stand For), a collection of pieces delivered by this most gifted speaker, teacher, lecturer, and national treasure.
This brief (173-page) volume offers speeches that illustrate our country’s core values and basic beliefs — some evolved from our founding fathers, some representing our recent past, and some fashioned from our hopes and dreams for the future. They highlight perseverance and determination as among the foundational building blocks of our national conscience, contributing to our structural integrity as much as the bedrock beneath the bridge supports the gigantic towers above.
It appears at a time when some of our local political structures and national institutions may seem to be fragmenting or in disarray. It argues for benchmarks and touchstones for preparing a better way ahead. It contains much of possible content applicable to this month’s remarks to graduating seniors. So we offer it to those principals and superintendents who would look toward a larger and richer source for their remarks — apart from the more ordinary words of the “go forth and prosper” variety.
McCullough’s speeches at Pittsburgh, Union, Dickinson, Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Ohio, Hillsdale, Lafayette, and Boston College commencements are included in the work. At each of these places he left behind his storytelling prowess and his most practical suggestions for those about to enter, and aim for success in, the wider world ahead.
He spoke, for example, of doing “something about public education. Let’s stop the mindless destruction of historic America. Let’s clean up our rivers and skies, and while we’re at it, let’s clean up our language — private and public and on the airwaves. Let’s stop the dumbing and degrading and cheap commercial exploitation of American life.”
“Be generous — with your money, of course. But more important, give of yourself. Take an interest in people. Get to know what they’ve been through before you pass judgment. That’s essential.”
The author strongly suggested the reading of history, knowing that those who came before were the ones who molded us — who made us what we have become. He urged reading books to understand the reasons things are what they are — and to read poetry, paint a picture, plant a tree, and write your mother a letter. “And sometime, somewhere along the line, do something for your country.”
Among his closing thoughts for the 2004 graduates of Ohio University were these:
“Never forget that one of the greatest of our freedoms is the freedom to think for yourself.
When bad news is riding high and despair is in fashion, when loud mouths and corruption seem to own center stage, when some keep crying that the country is going to the dogs, remember it’s always been going to the dogs in the eyes of some, and that 90%, or more, of the people are good people, generous-hearted, law-abiding, good citizens who get to work on time, do a good job, love their country, pay their taxes, care about their neighbors, care about their children’s education, and believe rightly, as you do, in the ideals upon which our way of life is founded.
Whenever you check out of a hotel or motel, be sure you tip the maid.”
McCullough advised graduates to work with spirit, and not for money alone, choosing “work you believe in, work you enjoy. Money enough will follow. Believe me, there’s nothing like turning every day to work you love.”
There you have it. If we can rekindle the sense of working together, building consensus, igniting the common (American) spirit, and learning to capture the accomplishments of our own history, we can expect that the “Age of Optimism” will open again for us all.




TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Wilton. Contact: brennerjoe@aol.com.