Photograph by Sam Abell
National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Stephen E. Ambrose was one of a handful of historians who became best-selling authors.
Perhaps best known for his books on Lewis and Clark and World War II, Ambrose also founded the National D-Day Museum and the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. During his career, much of which he spent as a professor at the University of New Orleans, he wrote or edited more than 35 books.
For Ambrose, who died in October 2002 of lung cancer, teaching and writing were two sides of the same coin. "In each case I am telling a story—I think of myself as sitting around the campfire after a day on the trail, telling stories that I hope will have the members of the audience, or the readers, leaning forward just a bit, wanting to know what happens next."
Ambrose was a man who lived his life to the fullest. He didn't conduct his research solely from the library. When writing his book on D-Day, he visited the shores of Normandy; for his book on the air war over Germany, he flew in B-24 bombers; for his book on the explorations of Lewis and Clark, he followed their trail. "I am an unabashed triumphalist," he said. "I believe this is the best and greatest country that ever was."
In the early 1980s, Ambrose established the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans and embarked on a task that would prove seminal to his work, collecting thousands of oral and written histories from World War II veterans. One of his proudest achievements was the founding of the National D-Day Museum, which opened in 2000. Today it is one of New Orleans' main tourist destinations.
In addition to writing multivolume biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, he wrote about such diverse topics as the building of the transcontinental railroad (Nothing Like It in the World), the Civil War (Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff), and the Indian wars of the American West (Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors). His book on the explorations of the west by Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage, catapulted him to national fame.
But it was Ambrose's devotion to telling the stories of ordinary soldiers of World War II that defines his passion for history and his legacy. "I was ten years old when the war ended," he was quoted as saying. "I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism. I still think so. I remain a hero-worshiper."
Ambrose also served as a technical consultant for several films, including the hugely popular Saving Private Ryan, and as a commentator for the Ken Burns documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. He won an Emmy as one of the producers of an HBO mini-series based on his book Band of Brothers, the account of an American paratrooper company in World War II. He also lectured, was a tireless fundraiser for the D-Day Museum, and formed a company that organized tours of historic sites.
Ambrose was born on January 10, 1936, in Decatur, Illinois, and grew up in Whitewater, Wisconsin, the son of a physician who served in the Navy during World War II. He planned to follow in his father's footsteps, but fell in love with history along the way. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, he taught at several universities, retiring from the University of New Orleans in 1995.
Ambrose received many honors for his writing and civic contributions, including the George Marshall Award, the Teddy Roosevelt Award, the Department of the Army Award for Distinguished Public Service, the Abraham Lincoln Literary Award, the Will Rogers Memorial Award, the Bob Hope Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, and the National Humanities Award. He was also awarded the highest medal a civilian can receive from the Defense Department, the Medal for Distinguished Public Service, in 2000.
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