California's great contemporary historian, Kevin Starr, died of a heart attack over the weekend at the age of 76.

An obituary at The New York Times notes that the San Francisco historian wrote the story of his native state with "a novelist's sense of narrative and character and a filmmaker's eye for colorful detail." 

It was at graduate school, roaming through the fourth floor of the Harvard library, that Starr discovered his life's calling. He was looking for a dissertation topic when he stumbled upon the Horace Davis Collection of books on California and the Pacific Coast.

"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." (The Boston Globe, 2003)

The details of Mr. Starr's life write themselves into a moving narrative: Born in 1940 to a mechanic and a bank teller, his mother had a nervous breakdown when he was only six years old, and he was placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage until he was reunited with her five years later. His parents had divorced, and for the rest of his childhood he lived in a housing project in San Francisco with his mother, subsisting on welfare checks. He got his B.A. in English from the University of San Francisco, served two years in the Army in West Germany, earned his graduate degree from Harvard, as well as a masters in library science from Berkeley, and held various distinguished academic posts throughout his life.

Perhaps he is best known for his magisterial multi-volume series on the history of California, collectively called "Americans and the California Dream." When Starr, the man who was called the "living archive" of California, was asked by the Globe whether the greatest change in the state's tempestuous history had taken place during his lifetime, he answered without hesitation:

"People have ceased to live in California. That is, they live locally, they live globally, they live nationally, but they've ceased to live in California... You don't have that commitment to the state, to the idea of it. That's part of how we lost control of our state politics."

In the nonprofit sector the loudest trends are in overwhelming favor of large-scale global solutions, of "root-causes" philanthropy over "band-aid" charity. But the example of Kevin Starr's life may come as a humble remainder that perhaps the real work of democracy, of public justice, and the common good is not in the grand schemes of global philanthropy but in our personal responsibility to the neighbors and communities that have shaped our "interior landscapes" - the ones that we understand best and to which we perhaps have the greatest obligations.

(Read also D.J. Waldie's reflection of Kevin Starr's legacy.)

Photo credit: shawncalhoun via / CC BY-NC (modifications have been made)