By Lori Bredemeyer, Managing Editor
When David Leeson was younger and developing an interest in photography, he didn’t know people could get paid for doing something that he loved to do so much.
He said he once saw a photographer at a graduation ceremony, and he asked the man why he had so many cameras and where he had gotten them. The man explained that he worked for the Abilene Reporter-News, and Leeson said he couldn’t believe the man got paid for shooting pictures, and he thought, “Dude, I’d do that for free.”
More than 30 years later, Leeson, who graduated in 1978 with a degree in journalism and mass communication, not only has been paid for his photography and videography but has led a career in the field that has earned him many prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, an Edward R. Murrow Award and an Emmy Award.
The Alumni Association honored Leeson for his career achievements and service to the university on Sunday by honoring him as Outstanding Alumnus of the Year at a luncheon at the Civic Center.
Leeson has worked as a senior staff photographer at the Dallas Morning News since 1984 after working at the Abilene Reporter-News and The Times-Picayune/The States-Item in New Orleans. He won the Pulitzer last April with Morning News photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer for his coverage of the war in Iraq, where he was an embedded journalist.
He said winning the alumnus award means just as much to him as the Pulitzer.
“It really means a great deal to me,” he said. “I thought, how is it possible an alumni award like this would mean so much and in fact surpass in so many ways even a Pulitzer Prize-[it’s] simply because these are people who presumably knew me back then and should know better.”
Ron Hadfield, editor of ACU Today and longtime friend of Leeson’s, spoke at the luncheon and said Leeson is lucky to have found his calling early in life.
“One of the greatest discoveries you can make is the realization that God gives each of us gifts; I believe David has recognized his most useful one,” Hadfield said. “We all should be so fortunate to find our unique gifts while we still have time and energy and motivation to use them to help others.”
Hadfield hires Leeson occasionally as a freelance photographer for ACU Today, and he said Leeson sees the world differently than others do.
“He simply sees things others do not see,” Hadfield said. “His photographs often catch the crux of the moment, the heart of the story and the soul of the person.”
One of Leeson’s former professors, Dr. Charlie Marler, professor emeritus of journalism and mass communication, said although Leeson wasn’t eager about school while he was enrolled, he has helped the department and the university for several years by teaching as an adjunct professor and serving on the Visiting Committee. He also was one of the first recipients of the department’s highest alumnus honor, the Gutenberg Award.
“David is a significant reason why the department and ACU continue to grow in stature,” Marler said.
Gerald Ewing, who worked with Leeson at the Reporter-News in the late ’70s and early ’80s, spoke of how he and Leeson created contests all the time while they were working to see who could get the best photo. He said Leeson’s competitiveness has worked to his advantage.
“He’s at the top of his career now-the very pinnacle of success as a photojournalist,” Ewing said. “It came with hard work and a burning love for photojournalism … and really, in my opinion, I think David’s career may be just beginning.”
After receiving his award, Leeson announced he is donating 20 signed prints from his Pulitzer Prize-winning portfolio to the university.
“I am very proud to be an alumnus of Abilene Christian University; I’ve said it proudly for many years throughout my career,” Leeson said. “I’m also very, very proud of being an Abilenian. I’ve always said I’m just on one long assignment away from home.”