The Passing of a California Legend
In Memoriam: Kevin Starr (1940 – 2017)
By Bonnie Reiss, Global Director, USC Schwarzenegger Institute
On Saturday, January 14, 2017 Kevin Starr died of a heart attack and our state, nation and world lost a great man. For Arnold, me and our Institute we lost a dear friend and mentor.
In the many articles and stories that have reported on his death and life we see them all report consistently on his many accomplishments:preeminent historian of the Golden State, prolific author, state librarian, revered public intellectual, and his favorite title, University Professor at the University of Southern California
I was quite blessed to know and work with Kevin and to be able to call him my friend. Kevin was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, history, literature, religion, poetry, politics and so much more. He amazingly knew so much about so many things. He enriched any conversation, convening or event he participated in. His intellect was matched only by his passion for life and his huge heart. When he agreed to serve as a "formal" senior advisor to our Institute, he joked that with him we get a two-for-one, with his wife. Sheila Starr is herself a great force who Kevin both loved and respected and viewed as his partner in all things.
Perhaps it is in the sharing of stories about Kevin that he is best understood and appreciated. While my mind is full of images and stories, there are a few that I thought I would share:
Shortly after California voters recalled Governor Gray Davis and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as Governor, Kevin Starr wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, "Fuse It–or Lose It". The editorial lays out how the greatest Governors of California were fusion leaders, rising above partisan politics. It was inspirational and wove California history into a respectful suggestion to the new Governor to revive the bipartisan "Party of California". Kevin said, "the core principle of the Party of California is that the state–its history and heritage, its environment, its economy and, above all, the well-being of its people–is worth imagining, worth struggling for; California represents a collective ideal connected to individual and social fulfillment. Everyone belongs to the Party of California. Everyone is welcome."
Arnold not only read the article but was moved by it, and asked to meet with Kevin shortly thereafter. The two men, both lovers of California, connected in that meeting and their friendship grew over the years, with Arnold not just considering Kevin a friend, but a trusted mentor. Arnold also called me (I was about to serve as his Senior Advisor) and told me to read this editorial and circulated it among his senior staff, encouraging us to use it as a “road map” of how he wanted to govern. I kept a copy of this on my wall in the Governor's office.
After news of Kevin’s passing was publicly announced this weekend, I heard from so many people. One of them was Senator Fran Pavley who shared a story that touched me and really reflects the quintessential Kevin and the many ways he impacted our state.
Fran first met Kevin when she was newly elected to the State Assembly in 2001 and she was introducing AB 133 to establish a formal position of a State Poet Laureate to be selected by the California Arts Council and the Governor. Fran had gone from teaching in the classroom to serving in the State Legislature and was concerned that this might be considered a frivolous law and that Republicans might oppose it. Her primary witness to testify in favor of the bill was Kevin Starr. As it turns out the Vice Chair of the committee was Republican John Campbell of Orange County (later he went on to serve in the U.S. Congress) who loved poetry. Kevin asked him what his favorite poem was and they began reciting it with Campbell and Starr exchanging verses back and forth by memory. The bill passed unanimously!
The final story I would like to share is connected to Kevin's role at USC, which I know was most dear to him. I also think its worth noting that while his heart was with USC, he had the utmost regard for other higher education institutions, and knowing I was on the Board of Regents for the University of California, Kevin would always remind me what a great honor that was and the important role UC played as the best public research University in the world. He knew many of the Chancellors and scholars at UC and frequently complimented President Janet Napolitano for her intellect and leadership.
At USC Kevin served so many roles; professor, advisor, supporter-in chief. He connected to every school at USC and supported them all from Public Policy to Religious Studies, ROTC to the Library. He founded the USC Society of Professors, and was the Inaugural Director of the USC Academy for Polymathic Study. A "polymath" is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems, so it is clear that USC could not have tapped a more perfect person to launch this Academy. Supporting young scholars both on faculty and students was Kevin's greatest passion. Karin Huebner who is the Academic Director of the Academy, and who loved Kevin, says he had a profound impact on her life and career. She shared with me emails she has been receiving from former students of Kevin. All the emails from students have a common thread – Kevin made them feel special, he elevated them to be their best selves. That can be said for everyone lucky enough to have known Kevin Starr.
There are thousands of stories about Kevin, each showing his love of California and his impact on people from all walks of life. His loss is huge, but his legacy is bigger. We at the Institute will remember Kevin everyday and will strive to live up to his ideals.