Samuel McCracken, 77; wielded keen intellect, potent pen
Under his own byline, Samuel McCracken wrote prose that lit up the letters to the editor column in Commentary magazine, and it was just as powerful peering from behind the curtain of speechwriting when he contributed drafts, suggestions, and editing to former Boston University president John Silber’s public talks and op-ed essays.
Equally memorable, however, was Mr. McCracken’s prodigious memory. He could reel off a lengthy wireless password or a credit card number more easily than most remember a four-digit bank card code.
“He loved remembering things and took a huge delight in being, I don’t know what you would call it, a mnemonic athlete,” said his daughter, the writer Elizabeth McCracken. “His memory was freakish and encyclopedic. I’m not sure if you could call it photographic, but he didn’t seem to ever have forgotten a fact that he learned from a book.”
With an intellect as encompassing as his memory, Mr. McCracken was once assigned to review the Encyclopedia Britannica. “I think he was one of the few people I’ve met who was qualified to review an entire encyclopedia,” said his son, Harry McCracken, an editor at large at Time magazine. “Growing up with him was kind of like having an encyclopedia at hand.”
Mr. McCracken, who spent more than 30 years as assistant to Silber, including times of upheaval at Boston University, died of heart failure Oct. 4 in his Newton home. He was 77 and about to watch a Red Sox game when he suddenly needed medical attention.
“I suppose it’s impossible for anybody since the 17th century to make a plausible claim to know something about everything there is anything to know about, but if there was anybody in the 20th and 21st centuries who could make that claim, it was Sam McCracken,” said Jon Westling, a former BU president.
In articles for Commentary such as 1984’s “ ‘Julia’ & Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman,” an 8,500-word dissection of implausible passages in Hellman’s memoirs, Mr. McCracken patiently and persistently tracked down contradictory facts, even reviewing train schedules from the 1930s to show that events could not have occurred as described. He applied the same rigor to questions colleagues posed.
“In those days before the Internet, Sam was certainly, without qualification, the star researcher,” Westling said. “I speak as somebody who loves and respects reference librarians. He was better than any reference librarian I have ever met.”
Just as thorough in the face of criticism, Mr. McCracken published some 6,500 words of responses to letters that attacked his 1979 Commentary piece “Are Homosexuals Gay?” He was perhaps best known for “The War Against the Atom,” a 1977 Commentary article, and later a book, that examined the public’s treatment of the dangers of nuclear power.
As imposing physically as he could be intellectually, Mr. McCracken “was 6-foot-3 or 4, and bulky, and he spoke, I think, without fully opening his mouth, and with a stutter that he converted into a style of elegant fustiness. He also was tremendously warm and fascinated by new people,” said the writer Mark Kramer, a friend and former BU colleague.
In an e-mail, Kramer added that Mr. McCracken “was a really complex guy, brilliant, curmudgeony, witty, ferociously loyal to his friends, many of whom were not comfortable with some of his well-reasoned but conservative and doctrinaire political stances.”
Although Mr. McCracken wrote for conservative publications, his children cautioned against presuming that his thoughts and political views were carved in stone. Elizabeth, who lives in Austin, Texas, noted that after years of writing for magazines such as Commentary and The National Review, her father became “a very strong Obama supporter.”
“I think he was comfortable being contrarian,” said Harry, who lives in San Francisco. “He was always comfortable learning and thinking and evolving.”
The older of two siblings, Mr. McCracken was born in Columbus, Ohio. He lived with his family in Washington, D.C., when his father was a code breaker during World War II, then moved to Iowa, where his father taught classics and literature at Drake University.
As an English literature major at Drake, Mr. McCracken met Natalie Jacobson in a Shakespeare class for which, characteristically, he had memorized all key dates in the playwright’s life. They married in 1959.
“He had a perfect memory,” she said. “I used to say that he could remember everything but to bring home the milk. He was also a lot of fun, which I think is an important thing to remember. We wondered why people complained about their 2-year-olds or their teenagers, because for us it was fun all the way.”
Mr. McCracken graduated from Drake in 1957, received a master’s in English from the University of Connecticut, and did doctoral studies, except for a dissertation, at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He also spent a year doing graduate work at the University of London.
He and his wife taught at Boston University before moving to Oregon, where Mr. McCracken taught at Reed College. At a conference in California, he met William Bennett, a future US education secretary and friend of Silber’s who brought word of the encounter back to Boston.
“Bill came back and said to John, ‘Hire that guy,’ ” Mr. McCracken’s wife said.
Returning to BU in the mid-1970s, Mr. McCracken began more than three decades as Silber’s assistant, speechwriter, and intellectual confidant.
“It was a working relationship, but also a real friendship,” Harry said. “It was just the ideal job for someone like my father.”
Jim Brann, who formerly chaired BU’s journalism department, said that “Silber trusted him completely.”
Mr. McCracken was not fond of being introduced as Silber’s speechwriter, because his responsibilities extended far beyond those duties, Brann said. Still, when it came to Silber’s speeches and op-ed pieces, “most of those were in part Sam, sometimes in large part.”
In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. McCracken leaves his sister Elizabeth of New York City and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday on the second floor of George Sherman Union at Boston University.
Although Mr. McCracken’s house was full of books, he embraced evolving technology. He was an early convert to writing on computers and more recently marveled at the opportunity to accumulate digital copies of books. “He said one of the great pleasures of his life was being able to carry a hundred books on his phone and read them again at any second,” Harry said.
Along with his extensive writings, Mr. McCracken “was one of the two or three best editors of one’s writing that I have ever worked with,” Westling said. “He was able to take a baggy monster of a sentence and see what it was that you were trying to say, and put it into clear and crisp and comprehensible prose.”
Mr. McCracken, Westling said, was also Boston University’s “unofficial editor and arbiter elegantiae, the arbiter of what is elegant. That may well be a phrase I learned from Sam, actually. He would have known exactly where it came from.”