Phi Beta Kappa inducts alumnus David McCullough with inaugural Joseph W. Gordon Award

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David McCullough, left, receiving the award from Joseph W. Gordon. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough ’55 was inducted into the Yale chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the honor society’s fall ceremony and received the inaugural Joseph W. Gordon Award for Contributions to the Arts and Sciences. Thirteen juniors and 62 seniors were also elected into the society.

Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest academic honor society in the country and elects members based on the percentage of straight-A grades earned at Yale. Students may be elected into the society in the fall of their junior or senior years, or at Commencement. The society also limits membership to no more than 10% of the graduating class.

In addition to the student membership, each chapter has the authority to elect a small number of people as honorary members, said George Levesque, associate dean of Yale College and dean of academic programs, in his introductory remarks at the ceremony.

“Often the recipient is someone whose undergraduate college did not have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa,” he said. “In other cases, we recognize the proverbial ‘late bloomers,’ those who may not have been terribly bookish in college but went on to a distinguished academic career. For our recipient today, however, I think we just have to admit that Yale made a mistake, which we’re now hoping to correct 60 years later, and I hope there are no hard feelings.”

McCullough graduated with honors in English and is best known for his writing on historical topics. His biographies “Truman” and “John Adams” won Pulitzer Prizes and were adapted by HBO into a television film and a miniseries, respectively. He is also the narrator of the PBS series “The Civil War” by Ken Burns. The recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees, he was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the Jefferson Lecturer in 2003, which is the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. In 2006, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

“Such breadth of learning is, of course, exactly what Phi Beta Kappa seeks to preserve and promote, so it is highly fitting that we, today, elect him into the society, even if we’re 60 years too late,” said Levesque.

In addition to inducting McCullough into the society, Levesque announced that the author would receive the first Joseph W. Gordon Award for Contributions to the Arts and Sciences, named in honor of Yale College’s longtime deputy dean and dean of undergraduate education. The Joseph W. Gordon Award will be given annually to a Yale College graduate in recognition of distinguished service and contributions, in academic or professional life, in the arts, letters, or sciences.

The prize pays tribute to Gordon for his “extraordinary service” to Phi Beta Kappa during his 40-plus year career at Yale as a faculty member and administrator, said Levesque. Gordon has served as the graduate secretary of the Yale chapter, as a national senator of Phi Beta Kappa, and as the national president. Gordon was previously honored by the society in 2012 with its inaugural President’s Award.

“No one has logged more hours at Yale monitoring the curriculum, approving new courses, reviewing majors, improving teaching and learning, promoting the arts, and supporting the libraries and galleries than Joe Gordon,” said Levesque. “Indeed, so much of what is good, and right, and beautiful about Yale College is because of Gordon. If the love of wisdom is the helmsman of life, Gordon has been our compass.”

The Joseph W. Gordon award will accompany the William Clyde DeVane Award, given since 1966 and named after the longtime dean of Yale College from 1938 to 1963. DeVane was a Phi Beta Kappa senator and national president. The DeVane Award is given annually by the undergraduate members of Phi Beta Kappa to a current Yale faculty member, and by the graduate members to a retired Yale faculty member.