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Lessons Learned: The Story Behind the Classic Book Tuesdays With Morrie

Lessons Learned: The Story Behind the Classic Book Tuesdays With Morrie

Tuesdays with Morrie, written by Mitch Albom about the final words of wisdom from his beloved professor Morrie Schwartz, is recognized as one of the most popular books ever written on how to live your life with understanding and how to face your death with dignity.

Albom and Ted Koppel, who featured Schwartz on three occasions on Nightline, appeared recently in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the book and talk about the tremendous impact Morrie’s words had on them and millions of readers around the world.

Booming Encore Senior Contributor Dave Price captures the essence of this ongoing publishing phenomenon in a two-part series. In this first article, Price recounts what Albom and Koppel had to say about their experiences with Morrie, his advice, and the book itself.

By Dave Price

If not for a series of those fortuitous accidents that have the power to change all that comes after, award-winning author Mitch Albom might never have come to write one of the greatest classic advice-about-life books of the 20th Century, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson.

Albom first met Professor Morrie Schwartz as a freshman at Brandeis University. The then-college student had signed up for one of Schwartz’s sociology classes, but at the first session, Albom realized that might have been a mistake. There were only about a dozen students there, and with such a small number, Albom knew it would be difficult to cut the class.

But then Schwartz began calling role, reading from the attendance list. With a last name beginning with A, of course Albom was first.

Mitchell? Do you prefer Mitch? Or is Mitchell better?

I have never been asked this by a teacher. I do a double-take at this guy in his yellow turtleneck  and green corduroy pants, the silver hair that falls on his forehead. He is smiling.

Mitch, I say. Mitch is what my friends called me.

Well, Mitch it is then, Morrie says, as if closing a deal.

And Mitch?

Yes.

I hope that one day you will think of me as your friend.

During the next four years Albom took every class of Schwartz’s he could. Schwartz served as the adviser on the Honors thesis he encouraged Albom to write. At graduation, Albom gave his beloved professor a briefcase. He also gave him a promise; he would always stay in touch with Morrie.

But then I broke that promise for 16 years,” Albom says. “I had no business losing touch with him, but I did.”

During those 16 years, Albom established himself as one of America’s premiere sportswriters. He was a nationally syndicated columnist for the Detroit Free Press, a radio personality, and a member of ESPN’s Sports Reporters panel. He wrote sports books that were well-received. His career was in overdrive.

But, in 1995, he was joltingly reminded of a promise he had made to a favorite professor 16 years earlier.

In his hotel room, Albom turned on the television, only to hear ABC’s Ted Koppel announce that tonight he would be interviewing Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis professor who was dying of the dreaded disease ALS, but was using his brief remaining time to share his final thoughts about how life should be lived with his family, friends, and former students.

Earlier, a moving story in The Boston Globe about Schwartz had caught the eye of Nightline producer Richard Harris, who then brought the story to Koppel. Koppel convinced ABC to let him interview Schwartz for a Nightline segment.

After viewing Nightline, a now-fully-ashamed Albom knew he should reach out, but struggled with what he would say. “I was trying to get the guts up,” Albom says.

Finally, he made the call.  And a connection that would eventually have worldwide impact was restored.

Recently, in Washington, D.C., Albom and Koppel came together to talk about the incredible man and teacher they knew as Morrie Schwartz on the 20th anniversary of the publishing of Tuesdays with Morrie.

Koppel, who conducted two more follow-up Nightline sessions with Schwartz before his death, said he still considers the professor one of his most remarkable interview subjects.

“When I first contacted him, Morrie said he wanted to first interview me. I guess it was kind of a job interview. I asked him what he thought of me (before the interview). He said ‘I think that Koppel is too arrogant.’ He thought I was too narcissistic. Of course, this was before the age of Trump. He didn’t know what narcissism was,” Koppel said with a laugh.

Morrie’s spirit was so extraordinary,” he added. “There was something universal about Morrie. His circle kept expanding. I mean here was this quirky little guy who inspired the affection of so many people.

Albom explained that after his initial phone call, he agreed to come to see his old professor. At the time, he believed it would only be a single meeting, where he would pay his respects and thank Schwartz for all he had meant to him.

But it turned out to be more – much, much more. For 14 consecutive Tuesdays, Albom sat with his professor, whose body was rapidly deteriorating, but whose mind was still sharp to discuss a final subject – The Meaning of Life.

During that time, many topics were covered, including love, work, community, family, aging, forgiveness, and of course, death.

Albom was initially amazed at how calmly Morrie seemed to handle his death sentence.

Morrie explained it this way:

“When I was first diagnosed with ALS, I was crushed. But I came outside and the sun was still shining. I expected the world to change. There would be no more laughter. The world will be somber because I received a death sentence. But the world cannot cater to one individual. So, I had a choice. I could go south and be angry for the rest of my life or I could be what I had always been – a teacher. Death would be my teachable subject. I’m on the last great journey here – and people want me to tell them what to pack.”

Albom said he had no plan to initially write a book. But Morrie had one great fear: that his escalating medical costs would be a financial burden on his family. Albom promised his dying friend that he would write a book based on their relationship and Morrie’s insights, get it published, and use the profits to offset the medical costs that were troubling his mentor.

Initially, however, it appeared this might be another promise Albom wouldn’t be able to keep. At first, no publishing companies expressed interest in the project, repeating things like no one would be interested in a book about death or that Albom was just a sports writer who knew nothing about writing a memoir. But finally, a publisher did accept the project and the advance was used to pay off Schwartz’s medical debts.

But even then there was a final hurdle.

The contract called for a book of about 300 pages and when the author turned his final draft in, it totaled only 160 pages. “I didn’t want to overdo it,” Albom says. “I told myself don’t try to show off your writing. Let Morrie speak for himself.”

When questioned about the book’s briefness, Albom replied: “That’s all I’ve got. He does die at the end. You can’t extend it out. It’s not Game of Thrones.”

The small book became a publishing phenomenon.

It spent more than 200 weeks on the best-sellers list. It’s been translated into almost 50 languages. It has sold more than 18 million copies and is used in classrooms and seminars on both living a good life and positive attitudes toward dying around the world.

Koppel asked Albom why Morrie’s story seemed to have struck such a universal chord.

Albom says he believes there are three main reasons for its popularity:

  • Everyone has had a teacher (either in school or in life) that had an impact on his or her life.
  • Many people see themselves as not being satisfied and not finding anything to truly believe in.
  • Everybody would like to know what really matters when you come to the end of your life.

Of course, at its simplest level, Tuesdays with Morrie is a story as old as time – a wise sage imparting what he has learned to a receptive student, who, in turn passes that learning on. In fact, that process may be one of the real ways we can actually achieve immortality.

As if to prove this contention, Albom ends the book with this poignant, powerful three-paragraph conclusion:

Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shrine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such a teacher, you will always find your way back. Sometimes it is only in your head. Sometimes it is right alongside their beds.

The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week, in his home, by a window in his study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink flowers. The class met on Tuesdays. No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience.

The teaching goes on.

Read the Second Segment: Most Important Life Lessons on Aging From Tuesdays With Morrie

Here is Morrie’s Nightline Interviews with Ted Koppel;

Other Related Posts;

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.