Kevin Starr, author of California histories and former state librarian, dies at 76

Former California State Librarian Kevin Starr, who produced rich social, cultural  and political histories that chronicled the origins and rapid transformation of the  Golden State, has died. He was 76.

Starr, a professor at USC, died of a heart attack Saturday at a hospital in San Francisco, according to his wife of 53 years, Sheila Starr.

Starr captured the state’s rise in influence, and its singular hold on the public imagination, in “Americans and the California Dream,” a sweeping series of books that start with the Gold Rush and go on to focus on the Progressive Era, the 1920s, the Great Depression and other distinct chapters of California’s past.

Throughout his work, Starr celebrated the state’s creativity, its innovation and openness to ideas. And he demonstrated a familiarity with a vast range of topics central to the state’s development and its image of itself: architecture, agriculture, literature, water infrastructure and the entertainment industry, among others. 

“He was the greatest historian Los Angeles and California ever had and ever will have,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who hosts a book club that counted Starr as one of its original members.

A fourth-generation San Franciscan, Starr  graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1962 and went on to earn his PhD in American literature seven years later at Harvard University. At one point, he wrote a daily column for the San Francisco Examiner. He became a professor of history and policy, planning and development at USC.

“California has lost its eminent biographer,” said USC Provost Michael Quick. “And we have lost one of our most valuable and trusted professors. The history of California could not be written without him both as a scholar and as the California state librarian. Our students were lucky to have had him in the classroom and as a memorable lecturer.”

Starr became state librarian in 1994 and retired from the post a decade later. He was named state librarian emeritus by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Starr was born Sept. 3, 1940, in San Francisco.  At 6, he and his younger brother were sent to Albertina Orphanage in Ukiah — more than 100 miles north of San Francisco — after his parents divorced and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown.

His mother eventually brought her two sons back to live in the Portrero Hill housing project in San Francisco, where he recalled the family living on a monthly welfare check of $130.

To “emancipate” himself from the hardscrabble upbringing, as he often said, he worked two newspaper delivery routes — a job that took him across Fog City. He also credited the Catholic Church’s strong educational mission. He attended St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin district before enrolling in the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco.

After serving two years in the Army, Starr attended Harvard University on a fellowship, and his time at Harvard —  where he eventually earned his doctorate — nurtured his desire to tell of California’s history. He recalled one turning point while browsing at Harvard’s vast Widener Library.

“Suddenly it dawned on me. I thought, ‘There's all kinds of wonderful books on California, but they don't seem to have the point of view we're encouraged to look at — the social drama of the imagination,’” Starr told The Times. For his thesis, he started on the first volume of what became an eight-part series on California history.

Starr eventually left Cambridge and returned to San Francisco, becoming an aide to Mayor Joseph Alioto. He attended library school at UC Berkeley and became the city’s librarian. He also taught at UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and finally at USC.

Starr viewed California as a special place and celebrated it like no other author, said journalist Peter Schrag, author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future.” But his upbeat outlook on the state was tested in later decades, as California leaders confronted growing poverty and inequality.

“I think he began to have doubts later in his career, as things got more complicated and more difficult, but he never lost his enthusiasm,” Schrag said. “He was saying, ‘I see the challenging things, but I’m not going to join the crowd of naysayers.’”

That message can be seen in one of Starr’s later books, “Coast of Dreams,” which looked at the years 1990 to 2003 — a period when the state struggled to recover from earthquakes, riots and a steep economic downturn. In the introduction to that book, Starr said it would be “seductive” to view California as a failed experiment.

“But if I succumbed to to this temptation, I would not be seeing the full truth about California and its people,” he wrote.

More recently, he wrote of the Golden Gate Bridge — which he dubbed both a work of art and a triumph of engineering — and he charted the history of Roman Catholics in the colonial settlement of North America.

Starr is survived by his wife, Sheila Starr; two daughters, Jessica Starr and Marian Starr Imperatore; and seven grandchildren.

“He loved life, and he lived life in a beautiful and grand way —  to the fullest,” Jessica Starr said. “We’re sorry he is no longer with us. He was taken too soon.”

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