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Pulitzer prize: Grandfather's stories about the pioneer days were seeds that developed into her love of history

Memories of sitting on her grandfather's knee were the seeds that led to the Pulitzer Prize for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

"I remember hearing Grandpa Thatcher tell stories about the pioneer days," said Sister Ulrich, the 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner for her writing in the category of history. "He put us up on his knee and would tell us stories. I have a wonderful memory of that. This helped me grow up with a sense and importance of the past."A gospel doctrine teacher in the Portsmouth Ward, Exeter New Hampshire Stake, Sister Ulrich won the history award for her book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785-1812.

She is only the third member of the Church to win a Pulitzer Prize, the highest award given annually for U.S. print journalism and the arts. Twenty-five awards are given each year.

Merlo Pusey received the award in 1952 for his biography of Charles Evans Hughes and Jack Anderson won the prize in 1972 for national reporting.

Sister Ulrich's book won three other top awards before winning the Pulitzer Prize. In December, the American Historical Association awarded her the John Dunning Prize and the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize. And then on April 3, she was awarded the Bancroft Prize, the top award given by Columbia University in the field of history.

"I thought it was very exciting to get the award at the AHA and I thought I was all through with it when I received the Bancroft Prize," Sister Ulrich said. "This is amazing, something I never expected."

Her editor at Knopf, where the book was published, was the first to tell her she won a Pulitzer. Ten minutes later Sister Ulrich's phone started ringing and life hasn't been the same since.

She grew up in Sugar City, Idaho, and then went to Salt Lake City, where she attended the University of Utah. She married Gael Ulrich in 1958 and graduated from the university in 1960 with a degree in English.

After graduation, the couple moved to Boston where Gael began studying engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1966, with three young children at home, Sister Ulrich started doing part-time graduate work. After five years and two more children, she received a master's degree in English from Simmons College in Boston.

In 1980, she received a doctorate in history from the University of New Hampshire, where she now teaches early American history and women's history. Her husband, a chemical engineer, also teaches at the university.

"I did a lot of part-time graduate work and writing at home while raising children." Looking back, she wonders how she managed. She recalls the days of driving many miles to take the children to Primary and other Church activities. "I guess when I was younger I had more energy, but I wonder how I really survived. I was teaching part-time too.

"I've always been a 5-in-the-morning person. That's when I do my writing," she explained.

For a time Sister Ulrich served as an early morning seminary teacher and gave up her prime writing time, but "I love the scriptures and enjoy teaching very much out of the scriptures whether to Sunbeams or adults." She currently team-teaches the ward gospel doctrine class with her husband.

She has also spent many years working and teaching in the auxiliaries of the Church.

The last thing Sister Ulrich wants to do, however, is give the impression that she is a `super woman.'

"I think I'm crazy. I don't think anyone should try to do what I did. It is very hard to be all things to all people. I hope I haven't tried to be a super woman. The world is not set up to make it easy to have a full and rich personal and academic life. It is very hard for men and women to do that.

"It's pretty wonderful when circumstances allow us to really have both sides in our life. But you have to choose in order to do that. There are some things that I have not done that other people choose to do. I've tried to really simplify my life in a lot of ways.

"What's important is that I get great joy out of writing. That is the thing that probably keeps me alive. It's a very spiritual thing with me, one of the ways I discover myself. I create order and meaning in life through writing. We all find times for things that matter most to us.

"I also have a family that is very supportive. My husband knows this is important to me and it is important to him. He has really been a full partner in our marriage and in child rearing. I'm proud to say that my husband makes great bread. He has his own life too, but he's not afraid to pitch in and do things that I might be doing all myself."

Sister Ulrich said her five children were also taught at a very young age to help in all they could. Now ranging in age from 15 to 30, only the youngest remains at home.

She cites the situations in life as the things that have continued to spark an interest in history and writing.

After moving from Salt Lake City to Boston in 1960, she became acquainted with the new city by reading about its history. She eventually wrote a guidebook, "A Beginner's Boston," as a Relief Society project with other LDS women.

"I was also trying to learn more about Mormon women's history in general. Then we moved to New Hampshire and since the university had a better history department, I decided to study history. It really felt right.

"The Church and particularly my experience with other women coming to terms with their own lives really gave me the motivation and wonderful support to attend the university.

"I have good friends who value people who are different. I probably am a little different, but I've never been given anything but love and encouragement from my ward."

Released in March 1990, her Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of Martha Ballard, a housewife, midwife and healer in the Kennebec River towns of Hallowell and Augusta, Maine, who began keeping a diary at age 50.

"As a Latter-day Saint I've learned that true worth is not always recognized in the world and I think that perspective really helped me appreciate the work of Martha Ballard," Sister Ulrich said. "Her sense of charity, compassion and concern for other people really made her a wonderful person to write about. Yet when she died, no one knew her name. The only record of her life was her diary.

"Her story reinforces the values of loving service and caring and being something in world. It also reinforces the purpose for keeping your own history and personal record. Keeping a personal record can enrich the lives of generations to come."

Sister Ulrich is also the author of Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, published in 1982, originally her doctoral dissertation.

She has written essays and articles for the Ensign and New Era and other publications.

Sister Ulrich now plans to begin a sabbatical and start a study of textiles in colonial New England to look at the language of clothing and the way people design themselves through clothing.

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