Pulitzer Prizewinner Atkinson tells graduates about his shaky career start© May 15, 2013, Norwich University Office of Communications
Rick Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian, told the Norwich University Class of 2013 that world events put an end to the first job opportunity he managed to finagle after earning a graduate degree.
It was the late 1970s, and Atkinson—speaker and honorary-degree recipient at the 2013 Commencement at Norwich—had already changed his career goals several times. He gave up a slot at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to study English literature, and then decided teaching at the college level was “too sedentary, too tweedy.” He applied to 50 high-school teaching opportunities and received 50 rejection letters in response. Finally, he found a job teaching English to helicopter pilots for the army of the Shah of Iran.
As he prepared to travel across the world for the job, the anti-Shah revolution hit its stride in Iran. In February 1979, the monarchy dissolved and the Shah went into exile. Anti-U.S. feeling was high even before the hostage crisis escalated tension.
“I got as far as the Turkish coast, and I thought, ‘this is a really bad idea,’” said Atkinson.
As a young man with no job, no marketable skills and vague career ambitions, things were not going well.
“I ended up living—where else?—in my parents’ basement on an Army post in the middle of Kansas," said Atkinson, prompting laughter from the audience of graduates and their families. “You laugh, but you wait.”
Through a family contact, he ended up with a modest job as cub reporter for a paper in Pittsburg, Kansas. Things started off shakily, but he loved the work from the start. His situation improved rapidly.
“Within a month I thought, ‘this is a calling,’” he said.
Atkinson went on to join the staff of the Washington Post, where his heroes became his colleagues and he won the Pulitzer for journalism, serving as a staff writer and senior editor. Years later, he quit journalism to try a new profession and chance to grow as a historian.
“I wanted a bigger canvas,” he said, “a bigger opportunity to grow as a writer.”
Atkinson spoke to the group of graduates; 237 from the Corps of Cadets where they lived a military lifestyle, and 173 civilian students; and seemed to shy away from delivering a heavy-handed message or advice. Instead, he said the “parable” of his early life demonstrated how people are free to try different things and may find inspiration in unusual places.
“You don’t necessarily have only one calling in life,” he said.
Atkinson’s second calling paid off. His book, An Army at Dawn, the first in his Liberation Trilogy about the American experience in Africa and Europe during World War II, won the Pulitzer for history. He spoke at Norwich just three days before the third volume, The Guns at Last Light, was scheduled to be published, and one day after historian Max Hastings wrote in a review for the Wall Street Journal:
“The Liberation Trilogy will be an indispensable starting point for future writers about the U.S. Army in World War II.”
At the end of his brief comments, Atkinson left students with one more idea. Using the words of poet W.H. Auden, he said they will doubtlessly put their efforts to creating a family, amassing money or building things, but they should focus on the end product and try to put their work to good use.
“All of you are put on this earth to make things,” he said. “Good luck with it.”