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If you like Stephen Ambrose's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
David Herbert Donald,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Shelby Foote,
David McCullough
and James Michener

Stephen Ambrose's recommended reading: R.E. Lee, A Biography

Stephen Ambrose also appears in the video:
The Power of Words

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Stephen Ambrose in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Power of Words

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Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose
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Stephen Ambrose Interview

Biographer and Historian

May 22, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Stephen Ambrose

What was your family situation like when you were growing up? Where were you? How many siblings did you have?

Stephen Ambrose: Well, my dad was a small town doc in central Illinois, about a thousand people, Lovington was the name of the place, and I had an older brother and a younger brother, and the war came. I was five years old, and he enlisted immediately and went off to the Navy, and we spent the war as camp followers, going to various Navy bases, as he did. Then he went off to the Pacific and we went to my grandmother's town, Whitewater, Wisconsin, where he settled after the war. So I grew up in that little town in Wisconsin, and eventually went to the University of Wisconsin from there.

The doctor in a small town is a pretty big personage; a lot of respect. Being the doc's son, the teachers paid a little more attention, maybe. Anyway, it was nice.

How did you get along with your siblings?

Stephen Ambrose: I don't have any dramatic stories. The usual competition. The fights. The cooperation. Camping out together. An awful lot of sports, and a great deal of competition in the sports. My mother was encouraging of that, and also encouraged competition in grades, and in reading, and in activities -- Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, and who's getting the most merit badges. So it was very competitive in a positive way, and very strongly encouraged by my mother.

You were the middle child?

Stephen Ambrose: That's the best. It is really. The youngest is always going to be the parents' favorite. I've raised five kids myself, and I know that's true. I think that carries a burden with it, and the oldest has got responsibilities. The middle one -- you're competing with somebody who's two years older, and that's very good for you. You can get away with things 'cause you're not carrying the responsibility of being the oldest. The youngest is getting picked on by two older ones, and being in the middle is the best place to be. I think you have to work a little harder when you're in the middle, and I think that's good for you.

Were you a good student in school?

Stephen Ambrose: Fairly good. I was in the upper third at least, if not the upper ten percent, but I wasn't valedictorian in high school. I wasn't straight A's, by any means.

I've read that Latin was important for you.

Stephen Ambrose: It was.

It's a sad thing in America today, that kids don't get Latin anymore. I did four years of high school Latin. Now I can't remember very much of it and I certainly can't do Latin; but boy, I'll tell you, that helped me as a writer. And where it helps most of all is with verbs. Language turns on the verbs, and you learn that in Latin, and you learn the strength of verbs in Latin, and it was a great thing, in this little tiny high school -- 300 students -- in the rural Midwest farming community, we had a Latin teacher, full-time Latin teacher. That's all she did. And four years of Latin in high school is a great thing.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Do you think verbs are more important than adjectives?

Stephen Ambrose: Verbs carry everything. The verb is the clincher.

I was taught as a graduate student, by my professor, that a good sentence is like a good play. You start off with where and when. Where are we at and what's the time? And then you have the action of the thing, and then you have your climax, and that verb is the action and that's what carries the whole story, and everything in the sentence has to balance on that verb. And if you've got the wrong verb, your sentence isn't going to work. If you've got the right verb, you can-- the adjectives don't really matter much anymore. The verb is the action, and that's what's so great about Latin.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Who was that teacher in graduate school? He sounds like an important influence.

Stephen Ambrose: He was. His name was William B. Hesseltine.

I started off at the University of Wisconsin as a pre-med, wanting to follow in my father's footsteps. The idea was I'd take up his practice in this little town, and at the second semester of my sophomore year, I was required to take a course in American history, which I didn't want to do. I wanted to get on with physics and chemistry, and get into medical school. But the university required me to take it. I sat down in a big lecture course -- 300 students -- and Mr. Hesseltine began to lecture. He was talking about George Washington. The course was called "Representative Americans." It was biographies. He hadn't been going 10 minutes and my life had changed. I went up to him at the end of the lecture and said, "I want to do what you do for a living. How do I do that?" He laughed and he said, "Well, to start with, you'd better major in history." I went to the registrar that afternoon and changed my major, and never looked back.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

One of the things (Professor Hesseltine) said that so struck me was that, "In this course, instead of doing a term paper in which you read three or four books, and then do some kind of a synthesis of them and just regurgitate knowledge, you're going to be doing original research." And what he had us do was to go to the State Historical Society and go through 19th Century documents -- letters, diaries, newspapers -- about Wisconsin people who were not important enough to have a real biography written about them, but who'd made an impact, because he was compiling a dictionary of Wisconsin biography. And we would each write a 10-page biography of this politician, businessman, teacher, whatever, and it would go into this biography, series of Wisconsinites. And he said, "You're going to be adding to the sum of the world's knowledge." And that just hit me like a sledgehammer. It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world's knowledge.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I went down to the State Historical (Society) and got to work on a man named Charles Billinghurst, who was a one-term congressman from Wisconsin, just before the Civil War. And I'll never forget the feeling I had when I finished that work, and, and wrote the 10 page bio of this guy: "I know more about Charles A. Billinghurst than anybody else in the world!" I just thought that was marvelous. Now what I soon learned was, the reason for that was that nobody else cared about Charles A. Billinghurst. And then what I learned after that was, "But I can make 'em care if I tell the story right." And that's how I got into history.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 11:44 EDT
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