Kevin Starr

Kevin Starr
Born Kevin Owen Starr
(1940-09-03)September 3, 1940
San Francisco, California
Died January 14, 2017(2017-01-14) (aged 76)
San Francisco, California
Cause of death Heart attack
Education Univ. of San Francisco (B.A. 1962);
Harvard (M.S. 1965; PhD 1969);
U.C. Berkeley (M.S. 1974)
Occupation Historian, author, professor, librarian
Known for Writings on California history
Spouse(s) Sheila Gordon
(1963–his death)
Children two
Awards California Hall of Fame;
National Humanities Medal;
Los Angeles Times Book Prize

Kevin Owen Starr (September 3, 1940 – January 14, 2017) was an American historian and California's State Librarian, best known for his multi-volume series on the history of California, collectively called "Americans and the California Dream."

After an impoverished childhood, he received degrees from various universities where he studied history and literature. Beginning in 1973, Starr wrote nine books on the history of California during his career, along with being professor or visiting lecturer at numerous California universities.

From 1994 to 2004 Starr was California's State Librarian. He continued writing California history throughout his career, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, membership in the Society of American Historians, and the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California. In 2006 he was presented a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush for his work as a scholar and historian, and in 2010 was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

Early life and education

Kevin Starr was born on Sept. 3, 1940, in San Francisco, to Owen Starr, a machinist, and Marian Starr (née Collins) a bank teller. He was a seventh generation Californian.[1]

Starr's parents divorced when he was a child. When he was six his mother had a nervous breakdown, after which Starr and his younger brother, James, were placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Ukiah. Five years later, he and his brother were reunited with their mother, where they lived in a public housing project in San Francisco, while they subsisted on welfare. He attended St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin neighborhood.[2]

He later enrolled in the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1962. At the school, he was editor of The Foghorn, the school newspaper.[3] After graduation he served for two years as a lieutenant in a tank battalion in Germany (the 68th Armored Brigade of the U.S. Army, in what was then West Germany). Upon release from the service Starr entered Harvard University, earning an MA degree in 1965, a PhD in American Literature in 1969. He subsequently launched his teaching career at Harvard as Assistant (and later Associate) Professor of American Literature from 1969 to 1973, and soon thereafter re-established his life in California.[4]


After returning to California in 1973, he became an aide and speechwriter to Mayor Joseph Alioto.[3] He was also appointed city librarian, during which time he earned a master's degree in library science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974.[3] He also did post-doctoral work at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.[4]

Beginning in 1973, Starr wrote nine books on the history of California, six of which are part of his Americans and the California Dream series. It was at Harvard that he first became inspired to write about California's history, after browsing through their collection of books about California and the Pacific Coast.[3] He explained the impact those books had on him:

All of a sudden I saw all these California books: diaries, memoirs, journals, histories, bibliographies. And a kind of enchantment overtook me, a kind of beguilement, a kind of reverie, definitely a physical reaction in the days that followed. As I look back on it psychologically, I see that I’d made an absolutely powerful connection between California and my interior landscape.[3]

From 1974 to 1989 he was professor or visiting lecturer at numerous California universities, including UC Berkeley, University of Southern California,[1] UC Davis, UC Riverside, Santa Clara University, the University of San Francisco, and Stanford University. He was also a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.[2]

Kevin Starr chronicled the history of California as no one else. He captured the spirit of our state and brought to life the characters and personalities that made the California story. His vision, like California itself, was bigger than life.

Governor Jerry Brown[3]

In 1989 Starr became Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California, and was promoted to University Professor of History in 1998.[5] Starr sometimes taught at the USC State Capital Center in Sacramento, California.[6]

Starr was appointed by Governor Pete Wilson to serve as California's State Librarian, a post he managed from 1994 to 2004, at which time Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger named him State Librarian Emeritus.[4] Starr oversaw the allocation of $350 million in local library construction money after voters approved a statewide library borrowing measure in 2000.[1] As a child, Starr had to read the newspaper to his visually impaired father, an experience which led him to create a statewide service that allowed visually impaired people to call a phone number to connect with someone who would read the news to them.[1]

California State Librarian Greg Lucas calls Starr "truly, one of a kind. No other historian has been able to capture California’s exceptionalism, its vitality and its promise in such detail and yet invest it with the immediacy and excitement of a page-turner novel."[1] Starr's library assistant, Mattie Taormina, notes that "Starr made you excited to be a Californian because you were going to create the future California."[1]

Starr is the author of the ongoing multi-volume history of California collectively entitled "Americans and the California Dream". The first volume in the series, Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 was published in 1973. His most recent volume, which covers the period from 1950 to 1963, entitled "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance" won the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history.[7]

Awards and honors

His writing has won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, membership in the Society of American Historians, and the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California.[3]

In 2006, Starr was made a member of the College of Fellows of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. In 2006 he was presented a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush for his work as a scholar and historian.[3][8] And in 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver inducted Starr into the California Hall of Fame.[1]

Composer John Adams was inspired by the "Dream" series of books to write the piece City Noir in 2009.[9] Starr received The Robert Kirsch Award by the Los Angeles Times as part of the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.[10]


Starr died of a heart attack in San Francisco on January 14, 2017.[2] In addition to his wife, he is survived by their two daughters, Jessica Starr and Marian Starr Imperatore, and seven grandchildren.[3]



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Kevin Starr, California’s premier historian, dead at 76", The Sacramento Bee, Jan. 15, 2017
  2. 1 2 3 "Author of California histories and former State Librarian Kevin Starr dies at 76". Los Angeles Times. January 15, 2017.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "Kevin Starr, Prolific Chronicler of California’s History, Dies at 76", New York Times, Jan. 16, 2017
  4. 1 2 3 "Biographical Sketch:Kevin Starr State Librarian Emeritus". California State Library web site. 2007. Retrieved May 26, 2010. (Full CV in PDF format from October 2003)
  5. "Kevin Owen Starr: University Professor and Professor of History". Faculty profiles. University of Southern California. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
  6. "SPPD Affiliated Faculty". USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development web site. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
  7. "2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalists". Los Angeles Times. April 2010. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
  8. "Winners of the National Humanities Medal and the Charles Frankel Prize". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved May 5, 2017.
  9. John Adams (2009). "City Noir". Adams' web site. Archived from the original on January 26, 2010. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
  10. Staff writer (April 19, 2013). "Announcing the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winners". LA Times. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
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