Ambrose is AMAZING!
If you like history, I?m not telling you anything new to declare that Stephen Ambrose is incredible. Historian of impeccable research, author of page-turner non-fiction books that read like adventure novels, popular history professor at the University of Wisconsin for 35 years ? look him up online, and you?ll see several pages are needed to even outline a biography of his life and laurels. Unfortunately, now, anything you read about Stephen Ambrose is eulogy.
I had the chance to see Stephen Ambrose speak, in Denver in early spring of 2002, at the famous, huge independent bookstore there, ?Tattered Cover.? It was during the school week, and I was teaching ?at-risk? kids. I decided, that evening, I was too tired to see Ambrose, even though I knew it would be good. He died that October, at the age of 66. Too young for a man with so much yet to give the world, just like so many of the people he spent his life writing about. I am still working my way through the amazing body of work he left behind, but I deeply regret not seeing him that day in Denver.
While Ambrose was still finishing his Ph.D., his writing on Lincoln?s Chief of Staff attracted the admiration of President Eisenhower, who asked Ambrose to help edit his presidential papers. Ambrose became the official biographer of Eisenhower, publishing more than ten books on the general, the president, his family, his wartime decisions, his political career. And although Ambrose went on to become President Nixon?s biographer as well, these aren?t the books he is most popularly known for.
The general public is perhaps most familiar with his work, ?Band of Brothers?, the story of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in their journey from training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, to dropping into Normandy for D-Day, across Europe through Belgium and Holland, ending at Hitler?s Eagles? Nest at Berchtesgaden in the Alps. After their work for the movie ?Saving Private Ryan,? for which Ambrose was the history consultant, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks felt compelled to make Ambrose?s ?Band of Brothers? into a mini-series. In Ambrose?s books on World War 2, especially those focusing on D-Day and the soldiers who fought then and afterward in the European Theater, I can hear the answers to questions I didn?t ask my grandfather about D-Day and the Bulge because I was too young to understand. In the last several years, I?ve stayed up half the night to finish these books, including ?D-Day: June 6, 1944? and ?Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany ? June 7, 1944 ? May 7, 1945.?
Besides these books, which are still regular bestsellers, Ambrose wrote ?Undaunted Courage?, one of the definitive and bestselling books on the Lewis and Clark expedition. He wrote a great book on the building of the transcontinental railroad, ?Nothing Like It in the World?; a book tracing and comparing the lives of Crazy Horse and Custer; a history of West Point; a discussion of the rise of globalism in modern history; and, finally, a short book on why he loved America, despite his cynical and Marxist roots as a young student.
Certainly, Ambrose?s approach to history is one that made his books bestsellers and drew criticism from his colleagues. Nevertheless, he always insisted that history is STORY. What drew Ambrose as a young college student away from his pre-med major and on to his future as a historian? A professor who told the stories behind the people of history. How did Ambrose write so many books about the same point in history, the same person, the same battle, the same journey? When you read his books, you see that he has not just recycled the same information in order to take advantage of fame for one more bestseller. Ambrose was able to write so many books because he did tens of thousands of interviews with real people. He got the details from hundreds of people who were there. He interviewed D-Day survivors from every corner of the world. Ambrose talked with Nixon?s fellow high school alumni. He read the personal diaries of Merriwether Lewis and walked and canoed every mile of the Lewis & Clark journey each summer with his family.
Stephen Ambrose insisted the most important point is that following generations are interested in learning about the stories of those who came before. As an educator, a history lover, one who finds deep meaning and life purpose in story, I couldn?t agree more. Stephen Ambrose gives the real version of these history stories, not something from Hollywood that is ?based on real events.? Through his books, Ambrose issues an invitation: come see that history is more than academic. If you thought history was boring or that these people of long ago have nothing to say to you, think again.