Lifestyle

Nearly 20 years after his death, Morrie Schwartz lives on

In the throes of a fatal illness, Morrie Schwartz was that rare voice eager to talk about his impending death.
MARK WILSON/GLOBE STAFF/FILE
In the throes of a fatal illness, Morrie Schwartz was that rare voice eager to talk about his impending death.

Twenty years ago this month, thumbing through The Boston Globe in the ABC News Washington bureau, I stumbled on this ironic headline in the Living section.

A PROFESSOR’S FINAL COURSE: HIS OWN DEATH

The story of a retired Brandeis sociology professor, stricken with ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease — who was given 12 to 18 months to live, was surprisingly upbeat. Rather than curling up in the fetal position, Morrie Schwartz irreverently held a memorial service for himself so he could hear friends tell him what he meant to them while he was still alive. Always the teacher, Morrie — that’s what he wanted to be called — decided to use whatever time he had left to conduct an ongoing class for friends and colleagues who’d stop by his Newton home — lessons on how to live as he stared death in the face.

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What no one knew at the time, least of all Morrie, was that nearly 20 years after his death, he’d still be teaching, all around the world, because of an improbable cascade of events — including the publication of a best-selling book about him, “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

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It began with Jack Thomas’s story in the Globe.

In the throes of a fatal illness, Morrie was that rare voice eager to talk about his impending death. So I took the profile to my boss at the time, Ted Koppel, who asked me to call Morrie to see if he would be willing to be interviewed on “Nightline.” Morrie agreed, but was a bit unsure about a network anchorman, his crew, and equipment invading his home.

In fact, Morrie insisted he be allowed to interview Ted first.

“You’re a narcissist,” Morrie told Ted. “I’m too ugly to be a narcissist,” Ted responded. And soon the two bonded. Ted asked Morrie why it was so important for him to talk about death. “This culture is so stuck on death,” Morrie said, “in terms of its fear, hiding it.” Where others receiving a death sentence might retreat, Morrie was somehow emboldened: “I think I have some things to offer the world. I’m getting grandiose, not swell-headed, but grandiose.”

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Over the next six months as the disease progressed, Ted had three nationally televised conversations with Morrie where he talked of ALS robbing him of his ability to walk, to wipe his behind, and eventually to swallow. But Morrie was determined never to let his descent into dependency rob him of his dignity.

“The truth is,” he said, “once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

The evening the first broadcast with Morrie aired, one of his former students was channel surfing at his home in Detroit and was stunned to recognize his favorite college professor (whom he called Coach), though looking more gaunt than he remembered. Horrified to hear Morrie tell Ted he was dying, he phoned Morrie as soon as he worked up the courage.

“Hello Professor Schwartz, my name is Mitch Albom. I was a student of yours in the ’70s.” Without missing a beat after 16 years, the first words out of Morrie’s mouth were: “How come you didn’t call me Coach?”

Albom says he “felt so guilty that I had to go back and see him, at least once.” A sportswriter, Albom drove up to visit Morrie on a Tuesday from Connecticut, where he did an ESPN show on Monday nights. Albom decided to return the following Tuesday, and then for 16 Tuesdays in all, recording their intimate conversations about life and death in hopes of publishing a small book that might pay Morrie’s medical expenses so he wouldn’t have to “die twice,” as Morrie put it.

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But Albom was turned down countless times. “Too much of a downer,” said one publisher. “Too specialized a disease,” said another. Albom couldn’t even finish his presentation before “one very reputable publisher” when he was interrupted. “I don’t think you know what a memoir is,” he was told. “Why don’t you come back in 20 years?”

‘What it meant to be human. That was the theme of his life.’

It was just weeks before Morrie died in November 1995 when Albom finally got word that Doubleday would publish the book, a project Albom had kept from Morrie for fear he wouldn’t get a publisher. “Giving Morrie that good news was the best Tuesday of them all for me,” Albom says.

But Morrie never read one word of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and of course, never knew it became the biggest-selling memoir in the history of publishing, according to Albom’s agent, the David Black Agency. The hardcover, paperback, and audio versions have sold some 16 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 45 languages, from Bengali to Burmese and Hindi to Malay. Since the book was published, Albom says, “Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t mention Morrie to me.”

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Many of the books are sold to schools, such as Mercer Island High School outside Seattle, where Jan Sayers has been teaching “Tuesdays With Morrie” and showing the “Nightline” interviews to her ninth grade English class for the better part of 20 years. “When my sister heard Mitch Albom speak, she says, ‘You must get the book.’ I read it in one sitting, cried through it, and we’ve been doing it every year since,’’ Sayers says.

One of her former students, Viraj Parikh, now a senior at the University of Washington, was looking through his old papers from Sayers’s class the other day and discovered a list of Morrie’s aphorisms. He committed one, in particular, to memory: “The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community and devote yourself to something that gives you purpose and meaning.” Today, Sayers asks her students to explain how they plan to incorporate that aphorism in their lives in their year-end autobiography assignment.

On one of his Tuesday visits, Albom vividly recalls Morrie asking him, “What do you do for your community and charities?’” His response: “I write checks.” Morrie scolded him, saying, “Anyone can write a check. You were given a voice and need to use that voice for something other than yourself.” Before he met Morrie, Albom freely concedes he was self-absorbed, ambitious, and wondered how many more hours he could work. Today, Albom constantly hears Morrie’s voice and devotes much of his time to eight charities around the world, including an orphanage he runs in Haiti with 41 kids he sees every month.

In their last conversation, barely able to talk, Morrie asked Albom a favor.

“Come visit me at my grave,” he pleaded. “But not like other people who drive up, leave flowers and drive off. I want you to stay, bring a sandwich and talk to me.” Albom was taken aback. “But you won’t be able to talk back,” he said. “I’ll make you a deal,” Morrie said. “After I’m dead, you talk and I’ll listen.” Morrie’s grave sits on a hill by the water. When Albom visits, he asks Morrie, “How am I doing? Are you OK?”

Morrie’s youngest son, Rob Schwartz, Tokyo bureau chief for Billboard magazine, says his father would be “shocked and dumfounded” at the success and impact of “Tuesdays With Morrie” worldwide but “absolutely overjoyed and extremely grateful to Mitch for getting his message out.”

In Asia, Rob Schwartz has had a front-row seat to watch a stage play version of the book featuring two characters — Morrie and Mitch — take Taiwan and China by storm, as it has in Australia, Poland, Japan, South Africa, and on and on.

Dan Yang first saw the play “Tuesdays With Morrie” in Utah and has directed productions in Shanghai, Taipei, and Beijing. “The appeal is universal,” Yang says. “It brings people to tears and moves the Chinese hearts the same way it moves the American or Japanese ones.”

The Chinese producer of the play, approaching its 200th performance in China, has invited Schwartz and Albom to Beijing this summer. The duo will take questions from Chinese audiences following several performances.

Mitch Albom with Morrie Schwartz in 1995.
HEATHER PILLAR
Mitch Albom with Morrie Schwartz in 1995.

“It’s extremely ironic that my Dad has become so famous in death that he wasn’t in life because he was a ham who enjoyed the spotlight,” Schwartz says. “The idea that my Dad has become an international figure and is helping people with his wisdom is fantastic. But for the family, it’s also tinged with sadness because his fame grows out of a fatal illness.”

Dedicated to keeping his father’s legacy alive, Schwartz is at work on two projects: editing
a book Morrie wrote before he became ill about how to approach aging, and writing another about the father the world didn’t know that might help explain Morrie’s wisdom honed over
a lifetime — “What it meant to be human,” Schwartz says. “That was the theme of his life.”

The “Nightline” interviews with Morrie were so popular that when Koppel anchored his final broadcast after 25 years in 2005, instead of a “best of” retrospective he chose to reprise the Morrie conversations. “Those interviews will never grow old, they will be just as relevant to generations 100 years from now,” Koppel says.

Nearly 20 years after it was first published, “Tuesdays With Morrie” still sells a staggering 200,000 books a year and the play continues to be staged around the world. Jack Lemmon’s last role was as Morrie in a 1999 made-for-TV movie, based on the book.

You could call that newspaper profile of Morrie the first pebble tossed into a pond that has been rippling ever since. In it, Morrie was asked to compose the first paragraph of his obituary. He paused and said, “It might say, Morrie Schwartz, 79 years old, died yesterday . . . and to the end of his life, he was a teacher.”

Was he ever. And today he teaches in the ultimate global classroom.

As Morrie famously said, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

Richard Harris, former senior producer of “Nightline,” is a native of Marblehead. He can be reached at rlharris05@gmail.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the year of Schwartz’s death.