Having lived in California my entire life, and serving as a library director in Northern, Central, and Southern California through the last few decades, I’m convinced I will never meet a greater historian and ambassador for the Golden State than Dr. Kevin Starr.
He was appointed California State Librarian by Governor Pete Wilson in 1994, a year after I started as the Madera County Librarian in 1993. My hiring was shortly after Madera County Library’s book budget was slashed to zero and almost half the staff was laid off. Our library was teetering on the brink of doom, but with lots of support from a lot of different directions and individuals, we were able to eventually work our way back to viability and visibility.
Dr. Starr and the California State Library provided several key grants and I first met him, along with many other Library Directors in Sacramento, shortly after his taking of the helm as the State Librarian. He initially surprised us by letting us know we were to address him as Dr. Starr, and not by his first name.
Dr. Starr never failed to impress me with his knowledge and enthusiasm for ‘all things California’ in the 20+ years that I knew him. No matter if I was reading one of his authoritative histories, or hearing him speak, I continually felt razzle-dazzled, not only by his enormous knowledge, but also by his eloquence.
It’s only fitting that Dr. Starr wrote “Over California” because he had such a bigger-than-life personality and a “from on high” perspective. For many years it seemed CNN knew if they ever needed a great quote about California for a news report, they could count on Dr. Starr to come through –and he did so with great aplomb time after time.
Once at a State Library function, I asked Dr. Starr if he would sign a copy of “California!”, a textbook he’d written for young students in 1980. The copy that had been donated to our library was in beautiful condition and I thought it would be cool to add a signed copy to the Permanent Collection of our History Room. Dr. Starr looked at it reflectively, noting that writing the book had helped pay for his daughters’ schooling. Another time, he confided from across the table that he never wanted to disappoint anyone because he grew up in a family that had experienced divorce.
Through the years, I invited Dr. Starr to speak at numerous library events throughout the state. True to form, he was always a colorful, gracious, and riveting spokesperson, no matter the topic or the location. The last time was in 2012 and he said he would talk about his latest, “Clio on the Coast, The Writing of California History, 1845-1945″ that was published by the Book Club of California, our co-sponsor for the evening. It was for our Friends of the South Pasadena Public Library Annual Meeting and Dr. Starr had accepted the invitation on the condition that I pick him up at the California Club in downtown LA and take him back afterwards.
After Dr. Starr’s riveting talk, we drove southbound on the 110 in my pickup. As we veered around a turn, I asked him if it was really the world’s first freeway, as the T-shirts sold in South Pasadena declare. Without pausing, he informed me that the 110 is only the West’s first freeway and that it was preceded by the Long Island Motor Parkway. When we arrived back at the California Club, I looked around the seat to make sure he had all of his things.
Thanks so much, Dr. Starr”, I really appreciate all of your help,” I uttered hurriedly as he opened the passenger door.
To my surprise he replied, “Call me Kevin.”
Rest in peace, Dr. Starr. And thanks for everything, Kevin.
Steve Fjeldsted is the director of the South Pasadena Library.