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Albom recalls professor's greatest lesson
(April 19, 1999)
The lasting influence of a great teacher is rarely more evident than in the pages of Tuesdays with Morrie. Its author, renowned sportswriter Mitch Albom, was on campus April 11 as part of the Husky Renaissance program, sharing memories of his mentor, Morrie Schwartz, with an audience of more than 150 people, many of whom had read the book and been touched by the story of a student and his teacher.
Schwartz was a professor of sociology at Brandeis and Albom an undergraduate in the spring of 1976 when they first met in a classroom. Touched by Schwartz's telling him "I hope you'll think of me as your friend," Albom sought out the professor for all his courses - "I majored in Morrie" - and visited him regularly in his offices for long talks. "He made me feel special, the best thing you can say about a teacher," Albom recalls. At graduation he gave his mentor a monogrammed briefcase and vowed never to lose touch.
Like many such promises, however, it went unfulfilled. Albom went on to become an award-winning sportswriter and columnist for the Detroit Free Press, a panelist on ESPN's The Sports Reporters, and an author of best-selling books about sports
figures. He describes himself as "working at a pace that knew no hours, no limits ... I was a part of the media thunderstorm that now soaks our country. I was in demand." There was little time for personal life or the kind of connections with other people and with a community that had always been the themes of Schwartz's philosophy of the good life.
Schwartz, meanwhile, continued teaching. He had a happy family life and enjoyed such activities as dancing and swimming. He started political discussion groups and a program that provided financial help for people who needed psychiatric therapy but couldn't afford it.
But in 1994, he began to notice the signs of infirmity that led to a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease. Typically Schwartz, after the initial shock and grief had worn off, decided to use his last months as a teaching and learning experience. Albom describes it as "what we learn while we are dying and how it can be applied to real life."
It was at that point that Albom found his mentor again. Flipping through TV channels late at night, Albom spotted his former professor on Nightline talking about what could be learned from dying. He phoned, with some trepidation, wondering if Schwartz would even remember him. He did. When Albom flew to Boston to see him, Schwartz's first words were, "My old friend, at last you've come back," and, later, "I have a few things I want to teach you."
Over the course of the next 16 weeks, each Tuesday, Albom flew to Boston to spend a day with Morrie. In his book, Albom recounts the topics; a careful list had been made at the beginning. Chapters are headed "We talk about ..." a perfect day, fear of aging, our culture, marriage, forgiveness, how love goes on, money, regrets, self pity, among others. The last chapter is "We say goodbye."
The sub-title of Albom's book is "An old man, a young man, and life's greatest lesson." In the end the book is as much about Albom and his search for answers to the question "what happened to me?" as it is the story of his old professor. Despite the many book tours and speaking engagements that the book's success has brought about, Albom clearly still loves to talk about Morrie. It has led him to appreciate the work of teachers, "the most under-appreciated and underpaid people, doing the most extraordinary work."