October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

Just weeks before his death, Stephen Ambrose told Todd Read, a neighbor Bay St. Louis Miss., that he was planning a trip to the Panama Canal. Read told him it sounded “awesome.” In response, recalls Read’s wife, Colleen, Ambrose “flung his arms out to engulf the [Mississippi Sound] waterfront and said, ‘I’ll show you what’s awesome. This is awesome!’ ”

An unabashed love of all things American is what drove Ambrose to chronicle the nation’s military past and inspire such memorable Hollywood epics as Saving Private Ryan and the Band of Brothers miniseries. “What a pleasure it was,” says Saving Private Ryan’s Tom Hanks, “to be a student of such a student of history.” Diagnosed in April with lung cancer, to which he succumbed Oct. 13, the author “fought cancer as he did all things,” says son Hugh, one of Ambrose’s five children, “with passion, with dignity, with generosity, without complaint.”

Passionate about American history since hearing a lecture at the University of Wisconsin, Ambrose, the son of a doctor, who grew up in Whitewater, Wis., wrote such popular histories as D-Day: June 6, 1944 and Citizen Soldiers and founded the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. In his last six months, Ambrose, 66, married since 1967 to former teacher Moira, 63, set himself a final challenge: Rise at 4 a.m. every day and work to complete To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, out Nov. 11. He referred to it, says Hugh, as “his love song to America, which he sang his whole life.”

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