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Memento Morrie

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IN MARCH 1995, DETROIT SPORTS columnist Mitch Albom flew some 600 miles to spend an afternoon with a dying man—Morrie Schwartz, his old sociology professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts—and found something he hadn’t expected. Though Schwartz was wheelchair-bound and in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he was having the time of his life—working on a book of aphorisms about living in death’s shadow, holding court with friends and students, dispensing wisdom on Ted Koppel’s Nightline. “I thought,” says Albom, ” ‘I’m 37 years old and perfectly healthy. He’s 78 and dying, and he seems eminently more happy and satisfied.’ ”

Albom felt he had to know why. So starting that summer, he began making weekly trips from the Detroit area to Schwartz’s home in West Newton, Mass. The result is Tuesdays with Morrie, a slender but emotionally weighty account of Albom’s final seminar with Schwartz—the 14 Tuesdays that they spent together before Coach, as Albom always called him, died of his illness in November 1995. The book is divided into “classes,” interspersed with scenes from the old days at Brandeis and updates on Morrie’s declining condition. The reader hears Morrie advise Mitch to slow down and savor the moment (“I believe in being fully present”), to give up striving for bigger toys and, above all, to invest himself in love (“love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone”).

Familiar pronouncements, of course, but what makes them fresh is Morrie’s eloquence, his lack of self-pity (making plans to be cremated, he tells his rabbi, “Make sure they don’t overcook me”) and his transcendent humor, even in the face of death (“I’m on the last great journey here—and people want me to tell them what to pack”). In the end, as Albom says, Tuesdays with Morrie is “not a book about death and dying at all. It’s a book about how to live well and be fulfilled.”

Growing up in Philadelphia, the second of three children of a corporate-executive father and an interior-designer mother, Albom enrolled at Brandeis in 1975. He soon signed up for Schwartz’s sociology course and instantly regretted it. There were just a dozen students and no place to hide. He needn’t have worried. “Mitchell Albom,” Morrie sang out that first day. “Do you prefer Mitch? Or is Mitchell better?” When Albom said that his friends called him Mitch, Schwartz responded, “Well, Mitch it is then…. And Mitch? I hope one day you will think of me as your friend.”

Morrie was an inventive teacher, the kind who would enter a class and not say a word for 15 minutes, then lead a discussion on the effect of silence on human relations. Or who might have a student close his eyes, fall backward and be caught by another student, then discuss the need for mutual trust. Says Schwartz’s son, Rob, 35, a journalist living in Tokyo: “Students used to come up to me all the time and say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky to have him as a father.’ ” Adds Gordie Fellman, a Brandeis sociology colleague: “Morrie charmed the hell out of everybody. He was a fantastic dancer. He would wear out 600 graduate women in an evening. He was not your standard-issue professor.”

Mitch took all of Schwartz’s classes, ate with him in the cafeteria, even visited at his home. “He was that first adult you trust besides your parents,” says Albom. On graduation day in 1979, Mitch gave Morrie a briefcase with his initials on it and promised he would stay in touch.

He didn’t, of course. After a few years chasing a career as a piano player in New York City, he eventually took a job at the Detroit Free Press. “When I got into journalism,” says Albom, who soon started doing radio and books on the side, “I just went full tilt. I worked from the minute I got up until late at night.” For 10 years, Albom—who married singer Janine Sabino, now 41, in 1995—was named the nation’s top sports columnist by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He was successful beyond his dreams, but something was missing.

He didn’t know what, exactly, until one night in March 1995 when, channel surfing, he saw Schwartz chatting with Ted Koppel on Nightline about what it was like to die. The next day he called Schwartz. “Morrie,” he said, “this is Mitch Albom. I was a student of yours in the ’70s. I don’t know if you remember me.” Without missing a beat, Schwartz replied, “How come you didn’t call me Coach?”

Albom hadn’t meant to write a book when he went for that first visit; he just wanted to pay his respects and apologize for not keeping in touch. The book came later, as a way of helping to pay Schwartz’s medical expenses. When Oprah Winfrey featured the book on her TV talk show in October, Tuesdays with Morrie became a national bestseller. But for Albom the rewards kicked in much earlier.

By most accounts his reunion with Morrie has left him a changed man. “Mitch used to work like crazy,” says Rachel Nevada, who does a Detroit radio show with him. “Now he’s mellowed out.” Seeing his old professor die, says Albom, awakened him to the fact that he needed other people and they needed him. He reached out to his brother, Peter, 37, who lives in Europe and had distanced himself emotionally while undergoing treatment for cancer. And he even began to think seriously about starting a family of his own. “I didn’t talk about having kids until after this,” he says. Explains Janine: “We talked about it. But now it’s a priority.”

Above all, perhaps, Albom regained his capacity for wonder. “I’d become cynical—I’d seen enough of rich athletes in this culture, enough of O.J. and Marv Albert,” says Albom. “But, with Morrie, I was transported to being the way I was back in college—wide-eyed. That was Morrie’s magic.”