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Historian Stephen Ambrose dies

Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Mississippi (CNN) -- Historian Stephen Ambrose, author of more than 25 books of American history -- including "Band of Brothers" and multivolume biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon -- died early Sunday. He was 66.

The author succumbed after a battle with lung cancer, said Doug Brinkley, a close family friend and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans in Louisiana.

Brinkley, who recently collaborated with Ambrose on the National Geographic book "The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation," said the writer was diagnosed with lung cancer in May and was unable to accompany him on a tour to promote the book because of his illness.

"Cancer was 'the battle of my life,' he used to say," Brinkley said Sunday.

Ambrose was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1936. Initially a pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin, he switched his major after an American history course with William B. Hesseltine, a professor he described as "a great teacher of writing."

Ambrose was a star football player at the University of Wisconsin and played in the Rose Bowl, Brinkley said.

The historian earned a master's degree at Louisiana State University and returned to Wisconsin for his doctorate.

Other notable books by Ambrose include "Crazy Horse and Custer," "D-Day" and "Undaunted Courage," a history of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Ambrose founded the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, was the historical consultant for the 1998 Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan" and retired as a professor of history at the University of New Orleans in 1995.

"He cared that people understood American history in their homes," Brinkley said. "His love for America came through in everything that he wrote."

Recently, Ambrose was accused of plagiarism after reporters found that some phrases and sentences in his books were identical to other works.

Ambrose defended his use of the copied material, saying in a letter on his Web site that he had "sometimes ... failed to use quotation marks" on material fully sourced in his footnotes.

"The copied words they discovered amounted to about 10 pages out of a total work of some 15,000 pages in print," Ambrose explained in a letter on his writing methods. "The investigative reporters found them by using my footnotes."

Brinkley, a fellow historian who succeeded Ambrose as director of the Eisenhower Center, said the accusations "stung, but he brushed it off like just a lot of noise."

"Out of writing all those books, people were looking for Waldo in his prose," Brinkley said. "His books are ones that will be in print for a long time. He'll be sadly missed as a teacher and a friend by so many."

Ambrose is survived by his wife, Moira Buckley Ambrose, and five children -- Andy, Barry, Hugh, Grace and Stephenie.

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