Lessons from Stephen Ambrose
After I read a feature article about celebrated author and UW visiting professor Stephen Ambrose ’57, PhD’63 in On Wisconsin in August 1996, I decided that he was someone I had to meet.
I offered to buy Ambrose lunch in exchange for advice about writing biography, and he invited me to meet him in Madison later that fall. When I arrived, I noted that his quarters in the Humanities Building were strewn with books and papers. A telephone was perched on a chair, innocently out of place in the middle of the room. A framed photograph of the author embracing his grandson at a campsite in the West and reviews of his best-selling Undaunted Courage were the only personal effects I recognized.
As Ambrose motioned me to take a chair, I eavesdropped on a telephone conversation he had begun. He seemed frustrated. “No, February 24 is not available! Oh, wait a minute, you mean February 24, 1998!” When he hung up the receiver, he exclaimed to me, “I’ve entered a new stage in my life. I’m getting booked a year and a half in advance!”
Here, before my eyes, was a best-selling author and historian. He was wearing a brown sport coat, flannel shirt, tan casual pants, and Rockport shoes. The red chain holding his glasses gave him a striking appearance. While it clashed with the rest of his ensemble, the chain gave his face flattering color. He looked younger in person than in photographs.
Before I could open my mouth, he asked, “So, what do you want to write about?”
I blurted, “You!”
“You take my breath away!” was his response.
After telling him that I was impressed by his career, he admonished me with an unforgettable phrase. “We’ll get along a lot better if you don’t compliment me so much,” he said. I agreed not to do so and requested that he answer questions about himself and his writing. He said, “I’ll do what I can.”
As our meeting concluded, Ambrose told me that — instead of me buying him lunch — I was to be his guest at a luncheon and meeting of the Other Other Club, an organization that celebrates Winston Churchill’s birthday at the University Club and features a speaker. After a great meal and the speaker’s presentation, I looked up, and Ambrose was gone! It seemed like the end of a Lone Ranger episode because Ambrose hadn’t said, “Farewell!” Then I remembered that he was taping a TV show that afternoon. I left him a thank-you note, again requesting his thoughts on writing biography. He soon complied with a written response in which he gave me personal and professional insight and advice.
What I learned from Stephen Ambrose is that writing takes energy and time. He spent five hours each day on research and six days each week working on writing. Ambrose advocated oral research — collecting people’s personal experiences via interviews — a technique he first employed as a student at the University of Wisconsin under the tutelage of his mentor, William Hesseltine.
Ambrose also taught me that the accomplished biographer understands the human condition, develops a curiosity about a subject, tells a story chronologically, explains and understands his subject, and cares enough to maintain the integrity of the past.
When I met with Ambrose in Madison more than fifteen years ago, he was on the cusp of becoming an acclaimed personality. In recent years, I have been struck by widespread controversy about the late author and examples of plagiarism noted in selected excerpts of his work. While I can’t overlook criticism aimed at his legacy, it hasn’t diminished the fact that he generously spent time to help me and, perhaps without knowing it, inspired me.
For that, I am proud that in my published biographical accounts of Harry Truman, John Philip Sousa, and Jane Addams, Stephen Ambrose’s influence is part of each page.
Thompson Brandt is dean of humanities and social sciences at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois. He has recently completed a memoir.
Published in the Fall 2012 issue