Sandler has a tuft of close-cropped white hair, a burly voice, kind eyes behind his glasses, and striated cheeks that open into laughter whenever he’s holding court—and it turns out that he likes to talk just as much as he likes to write. “It’s one of the great jokes played on a human being: Whoever’s up there created someone who’s the most garrulous person in the world, yet gave him an occupation where he sits alone for 10 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “So when I’m outside—or with a captive audience—I don’t shut up.”
Sandler has a preternatural ability to remember names, whether it’s an author, a friend he hasn’t seen in decades, or a minor player fallen through the cracks of history. Considering he remembers almost everything else, the fact that he consistently forgets how many books he’s written is all the more remarkable: Is it 86? Or 87?
There was a time when he hadn’t expected to write even one. Sandler grew up in New Bedford shortly after the city’s textile industry migrated south, oblivious to his own family’s poverty. As a student, he went from top of his class in middle school to a standout second baseman in high school. “I was more interested in hitting a baseball and chasing girls than I was in books or writing,” he says, “and I was much more successful with hitting a baseball.” Sports were his “way out,” he says: he earned an athletic scholarship to Providence College, which provoked a passion for American history that carried him through graduate school at Brown University. “It became clear to me when I was in college how much I loved history,” he says. “That these people, who were giants and less than giants, have come before me and walked before me, that I could stand under the arch at Fort Ticonderoga and know that George Washington stood there, and that he spoke to his troops by reading the speech I had just read. I’d get chills from it.”
He spent 13 years teaching history, first in secondary schools around New England and later as a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst and Smith College, and the initial plan was to stay in the classroom. But it was the textbooks—those hardcover slabs of boredom—that turned him into a writer. “There were these exciting activities, like ‘Go home and memorize a list of presidents, come back, and give ‘em to me by rote tomorrow,’” he says. “I thought, It’s got to be better than this.” He submitted two unsolicited chapters of his utopian textbook, and to his surprise, a publisher was interested. In 1971, Allyn & Bacon published The People Make a Nation, Sandler’s first book.
He has relished the life of a full-time writer ever since, rattling off an average of more than two books a year for adults and young adults alike. His oeuvre includes a six-book American history series for the Library of Congress, several histories of photography, and works like Why Did the Whole World Go to War?, which reframe the complexities of history for children. There have been detours into television: Sandler was a writer and guiding force behind This Was America, a series hosted by William Shatner and based on his book of the same name, and The Entrepreneurs with Robert Mitchum. But the allure of books endured in a way that sitting between takes on a TV set did not. And after 25 years of living in Boston and Newton and spending weekends in Marstons Mills, he and Carol made a permanent move to Cotuit in 1997.