James MacGregor Burns’ grandson reflects on the man behind the scholar-historian


Editor’s note: Sean McHugh, an Eagle columnist, is the grandson of historian, political scientist and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns. Burns died Tuesday at age 95.

My grandfather died in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

I last saw him Sunday. He was lucid, but confused. He recognized me and my wife and remembered that we had been married recently but was confused as to where he was at the moment. There was no fear in this confusion, just a bit of perplexity about where "here" was. He perked up at the sight of the ice cream we had brought him and interrupted us several times to ask for more. (The sweet tooth is apparently a hereditary trait that skips a generation. I got it from him and old family correspondence shows his maternal grandfather had it as well.) He was asleep again before we left, and within 36 hours, he was gone.

His death was not sudden. He had been in slow decline for three years after a fall and an infection had taken away his mobility. Prior to that though he was still, in his early 90s, driving himself around, mowing his own lawn, going for runs every day. In one particularly humbling experience about four years ago, I helped him hoist a sheet of plywood onto the roof of his sunroom to prevent falling ice from the eaves above breaking the glass roof and it was clear to me that he was doing most of the work. In his last years, he maintained his wit, but it was tempered with the frustration of being housebound. Each time I saw him, he would ask what was new with me, stating that there was absolutely nothing new in his life. He had just published his last book and was still receiving important visitors, but he never seemed to consider that important.

Already obituaries and eulogies have started appearing, in papers and publications across the country describing him and extolling him for the traits that make up his Wikipedia profile: Pulitzer prize winner, presidential historian, decorated World War II veteran, leading scholar on leadership, Senate candidate, friend and biographer of President Kennedy. Like Cicero making a cheap point, I pass these things over.

I’ve seen his Pulitzer and his medals, I think but it is hard to separate them from the many other awards scattered about his house. As for his time in the war, he never spoke about it much, except for being endlessly shuffled from place to place by officers unsure as to what they were supposed to do with a combat historian, and a moment when, in preparing for a reported charge, he found himself, like the other men nearby, building himself a makeshift earthwork from sticks and leaves and then realizing he was perfectly recreating a scene from "The Red Badge of Courage."

When thinking about my grandfather, I can’t really grasp these larger things, the career, the legacy, because just like how the skyline can’t be seen from within a city, none of this was particularly apparent to me.

I think of him as making boats out of newspaper for me and my sister and cousins. He would make a few quick folds and then plop the resulting item onto the head of the cousin currently in the hot seat and present a choice.

"Hat or boat?" he would ask.

"Boat!" I would always declare as though the fate of worlds depended on the answer. A few more folds and the paper hat was now a paper ship ready to sail the waters of the stream we trooped to, hat-ships in hand.

I think of his dogs. He loved golden retrievers and was famous for how well he trained them. It was uncommon to see him at home without a great shaggy mass of yellow fur lying nearby. His last dog, Roosevelt, died earlier this year and it was strange to see one without the other.

I think of his house, converted from a barn and filled with books, the great stone fireplace with political cartoons from the 19th century on the walls, the squirrel living in the walls, and his cramped little study, books in every available space, and the plank he laid across the arms of his chair to write his books on.

I think of how he would call out "Speech! Speech! Any statements for the press?" after someone blew out birthday candles. I think of when I was little and he and his long-time companion and colleague Susan would take my sister and me to dinner where I would always order spaghetti and she would always order French toast. I think of charades after dinner, of cutting Christmas trees from the woods near his house, of stories of family history that almost always included a variation on "The Ransom of Red Chief" with family members substituted for the titular child.

The human mind is not prepared to deal with death, the concept that someone just isn’t there anymore. It’s harder still, and exceptionally surreal, as I can see YouTube videos of some of his speeches and interviews, and hear his voice as it sounded not long ago. It makes it harder not to think that I should drop by the barn to see him and he’ll be in his garden with a big, happy dog flopped out on the grass beside him.

Sean McHugh, of Williamstown, is the grandson of James MacGregor Burns.


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