By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
For David Leeson, the long, hard road to healing just became a little shorter.
The university alumnus, class of 1978, spent nearly two months in Iraq photographing the dead, the dying, the bloodied-all casualties of war.
Now his work, together with that of Dallas Morning News colleague Cheryl Diaz Meyer, was recognized Monday as the best in the country by the Pulitzer Prize committee.
“It gives life to the photographs, and it’s like a salve to the wounds,” Leeson told the Optimist Monday evening. “It gives it meaning. These photographs, because of the Pulitzer Prize, are carried from now through the future.”
Leeson, an Optimist reporter who began taking photos for the Abilene Reporter-News in 1977, is a four-time Pulitzer finalist, winning this year in the “breaking news photography” category. His work from the war zone last year frequented the front page of The News.
A series of his war photos also was published in the Optimist last April and on the Prickly Pear yearbook DVD last year.
Leeson said that while the prize was an “exciting” accomplishment, the joy has been tempered by remembering those he photographed.
“It’s a bittersweet time,” he said. “Today, in the newsroom, I accepted the reward in memory of the soldiers who died over there.”
Leeson is the first Pulitzer-winning graduate of the university’s Journalism and Mass Communication Department. Chair Cheryl Bacon said she often predicted he would take home the top prize in the profession.
“I’ve always said that David would be our first alumnus to earn a Pulitzer or get shot trying,” she said. “And since he’s been shot and held captive at least once, I’m not surprised he’s won this recognition.”
Likewise, Leeson’s chief photographer at the Reporter-News, John Best, said his quest to push the photographic envelope was evident early.
“He was already living on the edge even then, I thought,” said Best, now general manager of KACU-FM and an adjunct professor of journalism. “He was very young and very ambitious, as we all were at some point.”
Leeson has made a career of being ambitious, living with the homeless, covering the maiming and recovery of a child hit by a train and covering 11 wars.
From 1977-81, Leeson worked in Abilene, then he worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune until 1984, when he began working for The News.
Leeson was a Pulitzer finalist three other times-for a 1986 photo story on apartheid in South Africa, as part of a News staff project on small wars around the world in 1990, and for a spot news photo of a family fleeing a flood in 1995.
But this time felt different, he said.
“I did have a sort of sense about it,” Leeson said. “But I didn’t want to hope on it too much.”
Leeson was one of hundreds of embedded journalists who traveled Iraq with the invading coalition forces. He was stationed with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, while Meyer took photos with the Marines.
“We had shared experiences in many ways,” Leeson said.
Still, he said, the healing continues after two months of photographing carnage.
“The toughest part for me was when we were coming home,” he said, “knowing that so many of these soldiers gave their lives. “You think, ‘Why wasn’t it me instead of some 19-year-old kid right out of boot camp?'”