Hero-worshiper

October 20, 2002|By Neil A. Grauer

STEPHEN E. Ambrose may have been too popular for his own good.

Students of American history should be grateful for that. He made our past so vivid and celebrated worthy individuals so long overlooked that he almost single-handedly made history matter again to millions. Yet many of his professional peers resented his achievements, equating success with shallowness.

The students Mr. Ambrose taught at the Johns Hopkins University between 1964 and 1969 remain forever indebted to him. He was one of the best teachers we ever had.

Mr. Ambrose, who died Oct. 13 of lung cancer at age 66, was a superb storyteller. From the astounding achievements of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, to the building of the transcontinental railroads, to the awesome heroism of America's citizen soldiers in World War II, Mr. Ambrose told tales in exciting, compelling prose. And the public -- supposedly so disinterested in American history that surveys suggest abysmal ignorance of it -- bought his books by the millions.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first to recognize Mr. Ambrose's genius as a popular historian. He had turned his doctoral thesis into a book -- as do many young historians -- and wrote about Gen. Henry Halleck, who was Abraham Lincoln's chief of staff. Among the book's scant readership was Ike, who thought so highly of Mr. Ambrose's work that he told his younger brother, Hopkins President Milton S. Eisenhower, that Mr. Ambrose was the man to edit the military portion of Ike's papers, which he had donated to Hopkins.

That brought Mr. Ambrose to Homewood. He was a spellbinding lecturer. He encouraged students to question him. That's how he got to know us, and many of us got to know Mr. Ambrose very well.

He was a tireless, rapid writer. In Eisenhower Library, his typewriter clattered constantly in his small office. He wrote many opinion pieces for The Evening Sun, and tried to become a columnist. He opposed the Vietnam War but never questioned the patriotism of those who fought in it.

In his course "War in the Modern World," he took students to Gettysburg to retrace Pickett's charge. He always ended the semester with the 1964 CBS News documentary, D-Day Plus 20,in which Ike brilliantly -- and movingly -- described the battle and mourned those who died in it.

Mr. Ambrose last lectured at Homewood in 1995, when he accepted an invitation from Charles S. Fax, a Baltimore attorney, and other members of the Hopkins Class of 1970 to attend their 25th reunion.

He spoke at Shriver Hall about the home front during World War II. Afterward, he told some of us he was finishing a book on Lewis and Clark. Later, we wondered, "Lewis and Clark? Who cares?"

The country did. Undaunted Courage became a multimillion-dollar bestseller.

I last saw Mr. Ambrose in July 2000, when I went to his remote cabin on the north fork of the Blackfoot River in Montana. He served a lunch of elk bratwurst and beer, and chatted jovially about my days as his student.

He wrote acclaimed two-volume biographies of Ike and Richard Nixon, yet his grunt's-eye-view books about World War II were what made him famous -- and wealthy. He reveled in the long-overdue recognition. "I'm a guy who writes books," he said two summers ago. "I'd get a royalty check and maybe I could buy my wife dinner. Suddenly, I started receiving six-figure royalty checks. This all happened after I was 56."

He used about $5 million of that money to help found the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans and the D-Day Museum in New Orleans. Opened in June 2000, the museum recorded nearly 340,000 visitors its first year.

His popularity -- and drive to churn out book after book -- got him in trouble. Historians whose scholarly tomes reach few were offended by his fame, and his rapid production of volumes evidently led to some sloppiness. He was accused of plagiarism, which he denied and attributed to an inadvertent failure to use quotation marks. He was cited for occasional errors, some of which he readily acknowledged.

He unabashedly called himself a "hero-worshiper." He was 10 when World War II ended. "I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism. I still think so."

Steve Ambrose was one of the greatest teachers -- and finest men -- I ever knew. I still think so.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist who graduated from the Johns Hopkins University in 1969.

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