Historian Steven Ambrose Dead at 66

National Geographic News
October 15, 2002
Stephen E. Ambrose, one of a handful of historians who have become
best-selling authors, died of lung cancer Sunday, October 13th in Bay
St. Louis, Mississippi.

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.

Ambrose was an Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society. For him, 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 is remembered by his friends as 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.

To write his most recent book, The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation, which was published last week, he traveled the length of the river.

Popularizing American History

Ambrose probably described himself best, saying "I am an unabashed triumphalist. I believe this is the best and greatest country that ever was."

In the early 1980s, he established 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 multi-volume 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 his 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 has been 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."

His World War II books include:

D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II—The individual stories of soldiers who participated in the Normandy invasion marked the battle's 50th anniversary.

Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945

The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys, the Men of World War II

The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany

Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest

NBC newsman Tom Brokaw credits Ambrose with encouraging him to write his own best-selling book, The Greatest Generation.

In the last decade, 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.

Honors Ambrose received for his writing and civic contributions include 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 awarded the highest medal a civilian can receive from the Defense Department, the Medal for Distinguished Public Service, in 2000.

His last book, To America: Personal Reflections of a Historian, was written after he was diagnosed with cancer in April this year. It will be published in November.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of the most renowned contemporary historians," said Rebecca Martin, Executive Director of National Geographic's Expeditions Council. "We were truly honored to have Dr. Ambrose among our select group of explorers and scientists. His tremendous breadth of historical knowledge and deep concern for conservation of our cultural and natural resources made him an invaluable asset to National Geographic, as evidenced in his lectures and appearances for us, as well as in the books and articles he produced for us over the past decade. We extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family."


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