By Lori Bredemeyer, Managing Editor
John Best doesn’t give himself credit for helping David Leeson win a Pulitzer Prize in photography. But he does credit Leeson with giving him his first gray hairs.
Leeson, class of 1978, worked under Best at the Abilene Reporter-News in the early 1980s and will be honored Sunday by the Alumni Association as the Outstanding Alumnus of the Year at a luncheon at the Abilene Civic Center.
Best, instructor of journalism and mass communication, will lead the benediction at the luncheon. He was chief photographer part of the time Leeson was staff photographer at the Reporter-News, and he said even 25 years ago Leeson was a driven photographer who worried him sometimes.
“David was young, and he had already started covering and trying to do things that pushed the envelope,” Best said. “I was concerned about his safety even in ’81, long before he would ever go around the world and be in places that were really dangerous.”
Leeson worked at the Reporter-News from 1977-1982 and has worked as a senior staff photographer at the Dallas Morning News since 1984. He was an embedded journalist during the war in Iraq, and his photos taken during that time earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, which he shared with fellow Morning News photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer in 2004.
Although Leeson has won a Pulitzer and several other prestigious journalism awards, he said being honored as Alumnus of the Year is just as gratifying.
“It’s chosen by people who probably know you better than anyone else who could ever choose you for an award,” he said.
“It’s also important to me because these are the people who helped form me, who placed their trust in me and confidence in me and gave of their lives to hopefully send me off so I would be a success in life,” he said. “To me, it’s very gratifying to know that I was able to hopefully perform up to the standards that I’m sure they were holding for me.”
Linda Giddens, president of the Alumni Association, said Leeson’s recent success helped the Alumni Advisory Board choose him for the Alumnus of the Year award.
“Usually they’re [alumni] recommended by an alum or a teacher who has personal knowledge of them,” she said. “Several people knew of the quality and standards that he upheld, and it just seemed to be the right time to honor him.”
Ron Hadfield, editor of ACU Today and former classmate of Leeson’s, will speak at the luncheon. He said the two have remained friends through the years, and he has enjoyed following Leeson’s career and occasionally being able to watch him work.
“When he sees something, he just works really hard to nail it down and get the image that he wants,” Hadfield said. “There’s a purpose to his photographs; he will shoot them because there’s something that he knows you’ll see in that photograph.”
Gerald Ewing, who worked with Leeson at the Reporter-News beginning in the late ’70s, also will speak at the luncheon. He said he has kept in touch with Leeson and thinks it’s about time he was honored for his success.
“I think this award is long overdue; he should have won for his first Gulf War coverage-he had some fantastic stuff,” he said.
Hadfield said he also thinks it’s the right time to honor Leeson.
“He loves ACU, and I know he speaks highly of his education when he’s around other people,” Hadfield said. “It’d be real easy for an alum who’s highly successful like that to forget where they come from and forget the people that they know, but David’s not like that, and I appreciate that quality in him.”
Leeson said he recognizes that Abilene and ACU helped him become the person and photographer he is today.
“It [ACU] provides you with a good foundation of not just ethics but ethics from a Christian viewpoint,” he said. “… I think that the role that the university provided was a firm foundation to start a career on the right path.”
Best said Leeson called him after the Pulitzer was awarded to thank him for his guidance in developing his photography skills and helping begin to build that foundation.
“I don’t take any real credit for David,” Best said, “other than I was able to maybe channel a few things and guide him a little bit, but the raw talent was evident, even in those early stages.”
As Leeson was growing through those early stages and making friends, Ewing said he made an impression on his co-workers.
“We all knew he would eventually win the Pulitzer because we knew that David wouldn’t stop until he did win it,” he said. “And I’ve got news for everyone: His career is not over. This may be really the beginning for him.”
The luncheon will be at 12:15 p.m. at the Civic Center, and tickets are $15 and can be purchased through the Alumni Relations Office at Ext. 2622.