Michael Hill is getting to know quite a bit about the Wright brothers.
Hill is working with historian and author David McCullough as a historical researcher on McCullough’s upcoming book on the Ohio brothers who built and flew the first airplane 110 years ago.
Hill, 60, spent a day in Akron this month, visiting the Perkins Stone Mansion and John Brown Home of the Summit County Historical Society and speaking at the George Knepper Lecture at the University of Akron and at the Author! Author! lecture at Our Lady of the Elms High School.
A native of Pennsylvania, Hill has roots in Northeast Ohio, having graduated from Howland High School near Warren and receiving his undergraduate degree in political science from Kent State University in 1975 and his law degree from the University of Akron in 1983.
Hill has worked with McCullough on several of his books over the past 30 years, including Truman, John Adams, 1776 and others. He has also worked with many other writers, including Jon Meacham, as well as documentarian Ken Burns on his Civil War and Baseball productions.
His own book — Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege and Commune of Paris — was published by Simon & Schuster in 2012.
As a student at Kent State, Hill interned with the late U.S. Rep. John Seiberling in 1973 and later worked as a press assistant to then-Vice President Walter Mondale.
“Historical research with a passion for history is one of the best jobs,” said Hill, who lives in Fredericksburg, Va. “It is following my bliss.”
Hill has been working on a project for a decade: researching seven Harvard classmates, including T.S. Eliot, poet; John Reed, author and communist; and Walter Lippmann, author and journalist, who met before World War I and how their lives tell the story of the 20th century.
“It’s a lifelong thing,” Hill said of the project.
After reading The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge and Mornings on Horseback about Teddy Roosevelt, Hill wrote McCullough, the author of both, and offered to work for him for free.
McCullough hired him.
It was while researching The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, a story of Americans living in Paris during the 19th century, that Hill became intrigued with Washburne. McCullough asked Hill to find out who was the American minister to France during the Franco-Prussian War.
“He didn’t know him, and I didn’t know him,” Hill said.
From there, Hill discovered papers, letters, a diary and other documents that became the book. He said there is a lesson in his discovery of the interesting life of Washburne.
“You have to keep digging,” he said.
His research on the Wright brothers has brought him to Dayton to investigate.
In June, the state of Connecticut passed a law that says state resident Gustave Whitehead was actually the first person to fly.
Hill said McCullough is aware of the Connecticut law.
He said when the Connecticut issue surfaced, curators at the National Air and Space Museum, including senior curator Dr. Tom Crouch, who has written a book about the Wright brothers, studied the issue.
Hill said Crouch has said that “in terms of what is being offered now, there is not enough proof” that the Connecticut flight happened before the Wright brothers’.
But he said, because Crouch is also a scholar, he has said if the proof arises, “We will accept and we will incorporate it into the body of history about this.”
In terms of the issue of who was first in flight, North Carolina, where the Wright brothers flew in the Outer Banks, or Dayton, where they invented their plane and developed it, Hill said “it is a progressive thing.”
In history, Hill said, “everybody is a part of the pie.”
The Wright brothers book is expected to be published in 2015, Hill said.
His recent visit to Akron was arranged by Nancy and John Heslop of Akron.
Nancy Heslop said she watched a C-SPAN interview of Hill by Brian Lamb and wanted to see if he could come to Akron to speak and sign books.
“He has worked with all my favorite writers,” said Heslop, who with her husband hosted a reception for him at the O’Neil House Bed and Breakfast on behalf of UA, Our Lady of the Elms and the Summit County Historical Society.
“He’s a treasure trove of history and invaluable to many of the very finest writers of history,” Heslop said.
To see the C-SPAN interview with Hill, go to: www.c-spanvideo.org/program/309298-1.
In that program, McCullough says of Hill: “I couldn’t do what I do without him.”
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.