I only met Jack Thomas briefly. But the enormity of the impact he had on my family and me is practically overwhelming. His recent passing is a huge loss for the New England community and a moment of reflection for us all.
I had read Jack’s evocative and powerful human interest stories in The Boston Globe since my youth. The Globe was, after all, our family go-to paper and a ubiquitous presence in the Schwartz household, first in Brookline and then West Newton. But I had never considered that Jack would enter our residence . . . or that his writing would lead to my father being the subject of one of the best-selling memoirs of all time.
But that he did, and it did.
In the late winter of 1995, my father, Morrie, a professor emeritus at Brandeis University, had been attracting attention for his gatherings at our house, where he discussed his impending death from Lou Gehrig’s disease, what to value in one’s life, and how to live. These discussions had led my father to write down, or dictate, aphorisms that would later be published first as Letting Go and then retitled Morrie in His Own Words. They also spurred dad to have a “living funeral,” a memorial service he could attend where his family, friends, and colleagues related how they felt about him, and what they were pushed to consider by his thoughts.
This novel and provocative ceremony apparently caught Jack’s attention, and he decided to meet this professor who was using his own death to teach people about life. Though I had heard my father relate the ideas he imparted to Jack many times, the touching, insightful, and sensitive way Jack captured my dad in the Globe piece published March 9, 1995, was a revelation. “His hair, wispy and gray, frames a face creased by days of laughter and nights of fear.” Wow. Talk about on the button. Jack’s piece starts out with these kinds of resonant descriptions and then, with intuitive genius, strikes all the right notes. He quotes a poem by our cousin Marsha Raredon, “Archives of Love,” which at once captures Dad wonderfully and cites one of the most important people outside of our immediate nuclear family.
Jack delved deeply into my father’s thoughts on life, and especially death. “I have two groups I meet with here,” Dad told Jack. “One is a political, but the other is a spirituality-death group . . . and we’re grappling with this question — what is the ‘right’ way to think about spirit?” “An anthropomorphic God doesn’t make sense to us,” Dad notes, “but we believe there is something powerful in the universe beyond the material stuff.”
My father’s inventive approach to dying combined with the perspicuity of Jack’s piece have resonated far and long. First, because it was noticed by Nightline senior producer (and Marblehead native) Richard Harris, who then suggested having my father on the program with Ted Koppel. And, as is well-known, that led to Dad’s old and adored student Mitch Albom reconnecting with my father and writing his multimillion seller Tuesdays with Morrie.
Indeed, the resonance in craftsmanship, phrasing, and insight between Mitch and Jack is remarkable. One suspects the clarity of thought of their subject played a role. A 25th anniversary edition of Tuesdays with Morrie has now been released and appears to be as popular as ever.
Jack ended his piece by quoting my dad on how his obit might read: “. . . and to the end of his life, he was a teacher.” This spirit has been carried on by the family. I have edited a manuscript my dad wrote from 1989-1992 and it will be published in April as The Wisdom of Morrie. Dad, and his teaching, live on.
Shortly after Jack wrote in the Globe Magazine last year that he had months to live, he expressed appreciation that my dad had “opened up the topic of death that Americans might more adequately come to understand its importance during the lives of every one of us.” To him I would say now: Jack, words cannot express the gratitude of the Schwartz family.
Rob Schwartz is a correspondent with Billboard Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.