Finding solace in history
By ELIZABETH COSIN / Healdsburg Correspondent
Chris O’Sullivan discovered his love of history when he turned to books to find solace during a difficult childhood.
The one book that really changed his life, he says, was Howard Zinn’s “The Peoples’ History of the United States,” the ground-breaking 1980 book that sought to tell American history through the eyes of the everyday Americans rather than political and economic leaders.
O’Sullivan, the son and grandson of U.S. Army generals, says his father was both conservative and opinionated, and they argued a lot — about everything. But in Zinn’s book, he found a world view he didn’t even know existed.
“It absolutely blew my mind,” says O’Sullivan, an award-winning author and FDR scholar, as well as an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco and Sonoma State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
“It was a totally different perspective than the one I had been getting at home. One I didn’t really know was out there.”
The San Francisco-native, now Healdsburg resident, says the book sparked something in him, beginning a love affair with history that has helped him carve a respected career in teaching and writing.
A self-proclaimed “rebellious kid,” O’Sullivan says the books also gave him a reason to focus more on school. After high school he spent time at a community college before making his way to UC Berkeley to pursue a degree in American History.
At Berkeley, he joined the school newspaper, The Daily Cal, and later became a stringer for the San Francisco Examiner. He came to love the day-to-day hustle and bustle of being a journalist and, after college, went to work as a reporter. He eventually landed a job in the Examiner’s D.C. bureau during the early 1990s.
“When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the show ‘Lou Grant’,” he says. “That whole world seemed so cool to me. I wanted to be a part of it.”
While in D.C., he got recruited to help then-Examiner bureau chief Chris Matthews research his book, “Kennedy and Nixon,” and began to feel the lure of telling stories that went deeper than daily journalism.
“You’d write a story, maybe a follow-up or two, but you knew you were just scratching the surface,” he says. “I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to write my own book.”
He eventually left D.C. to earn his masters at the University of London, doing his thesis on the 1962 Polaris Controversy during Kennedy’s Presidency.
Yet it was FDR and the New Deal Era that truly drew his interest, another issue he and his father argued about.
“FDR was a four-letter word in our house,” he says. “It was not a subject you wanted to bring up with him. Ever.”
But O’Sullivan was hooked on the period, in particular wondering what changed Roosevelt from a “superficial, supercilious twit,” into the charismatic leader he later became.
“I kept thinking, what was it that made him so different?” he says. “Was it just the debilitating illness or was it something more?”
O’Sullivan set out to find out, returning to America and settling in New York, where he taught at a small college. He also made dozens of trips to the FDR Presidential Library in upstate Hyde Park.
O’Sullivan eventually narrowed his focus to Sumner Welles, a close friend and confidant of FDR’s and the man he says influenced Roosevelt’s thinking.
His thesis eventually became the book, “Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning and the Quest for a New World Order 1937-1943,” which won the American Historical Association’s Gutenberg e-Prize. He returned to London for his doctorate in International History from the London School of Economics.
By the time O’Sullivan finished the program, he felt drawn to his father, who was in assisted living in Napa County. His wife Maeve was hired to teach first grade at St. John Catholic School in Healdsburg, making that possible.
And while he has always thought he would return to the city, O’Sullivan says he has found in Healdsburg a place to call home.
“I probably wouldn’t have said this a few years ago, but I’ve come to really love this town,” he says. “It’s a wonderful place to live. I can see us staying.”
During the ensuing years he has continued to research and write — “The United Nations: A Concise History” in 2005, followed by “Colin Powell: A Political Biography” in 2010.
He has since returned to his favorite subject, publishing “FDR and the End of Empire: The Origins of American Power in the Middle East” in 2012. Next up are volumes about FDR intimates Harry Hopkins (expected out in 2014) and Frank Knox (in progress).
O’Sullivan has the added benefit of being near his father, now in his 90s.
“Even now, he still reads everything I write and gives me a lot of feedback — it’s extremely helpful,” he says. “I suppose you could say we’ve put all that arguing to good use now.”