Jerry E. Strahan, Author and Historian, has spent 40 years as the General Manager of Lucky Dogs, New Orleans’ beloved hot dog vending company. He also studied under our founder, Stephen E. Ambrose while Dr. Ambrose was a professor of history at the University of New Orleans. Strahan wrote this guest column about Dr. Ambrose, which appeared in The Advocate Baton Rouge. It is a wonderful tribute to Dr. Ambrose, and credits the historian for inspiring Strahan to become a writer.
We think Strahan speaks for the thousands of people who have been inspired by Dr. Ambrose’s passion for history as expressed in the many books he authored.
Guest column: How Stephen Ambrose changed my life
October 25, 2016
By Jerry E. Strahan, The Advocate
In 1970, when I enrolled at Louisiana State University in New Orleans, it was little more than open land on the lakefront. There were few trees and even fewer buildings. However, what the campus lacked in foliage and structures, it more than made up for with its talented and dedicated faculty.
Leading this upstart academic institution was Chancellor Homer L. Hitt. Somehow, Hitt managed to take an abandoned World War II naval air station and turn it into a modern metropolitan university — one that has turned out more than 75,000 graduates.
Many, myself included, attended LSUNO for three main reasons. First, it had an outstanding academic reputation. Second, tuition was reasonable. And lastly, one could further cut expenses by living at home. Had it not been for LSUNO, without a doubt, I would not have gone to college. Additionally, I would have never met Professor Stephen Ambrose, a man who had a profound impact on my life.
During the early and mid-1970s, I took a total of five courses under this incredible historian. These were, in my opinion, the “golden years” of LSUNO’s history department. Ambrose would come to class wearing a buckskin jacket, cowboy boots, hair to his shoulders, with his black lab, Bib, walking by his side and carrying the day’s lecture in his mouth. He was in full character as he was researching and writing his work, “Crazy Horse and Custer.” He was one of a number of remarkable historians in the department, including Gordon “Nick” Mueller (now head of The National WWII Museum) and Joseph Logsdon.
Ambrose had the most influence on me. As a junior, I took his modern military history course. A research paper was required. I chose to write on Andrew Higgins, the designer and builder of the famous World War II landing craft. That paper led to my doing graduate work in history at what had now become the University of New Orleans. Ambrose served as my major professor and thesis adviser. My thesis was a more in-depth, 90-page version of my earlier Higgins paper.
After graduating in 1976, with a master’s degree in history, I went into business. Sixteen years later, Ambrose contacted me and insisted that I turn my Higgins research into a book. To this day, I’m not certain why, instead of telling him no, I caved and agreed to send him a chapter a month. Within a week or so of my sending each chapter, the first page would come back with a one-or-two-sentence assessment written across it. I had been out of graduate school going on two decades, but I was still being graded by my old professor.
The end result was “Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II,” the only biography ever written of this key WWII figure. In 1994, Parade Magazine chose the book as one of the best ever written on “the most crucial 24 hours of the war.”
Additionally, it was Ambrose’s insistence that led to my writing a second book, “Managing Ignatius, the Lunacy of Lucky Dogs and Life in the Quarter,” which was published in 1998. The sequel to this work, “Lucky Dogs, from Bourbon Street, to Beijing, and Beyond,” will be released this October. It is only because I attended UNO and only because I met Ambrose that any of my books were written.
Additionally, because of Ambrose and Nick Mueller I have also spent the last 20 years as a volunteer at The National World War II Museum, which they founded. On Nov. 3, this institution will host the University of New Orleans Distinguished Alumni Gala, which will pay special tribute to one outstanding UNO graduate, tourism industry leader Mark Romig. For details, see makinghistory.uno.edu.
Working with a phenomenal group of museum volunteers, including many UNO graduates, I took part in building a Higgins LCVP landing craft in 1996. Then we restored an original Higgins LCPL landing craft. Most recently, we have been restoring the Higgins-built PT-305. Once she is launched, she will be the only operational PT boat on earth that saw action in World War II.
Looking back, I find it amazing how a single undergraduate paper has affected my life for more than 40 years. I probably need to check and see what I made in that course. Surely, I’ve earned extra credit by now.