Mitch Albom

30th November 2012 at 00:00
The author recalls how he got to know and then rekindled his friendship with a truly inspiring figure

I met Morrie Schwartz the first day of college in 1975. He was a professor of sociology and I was in his class. He said: "Mitch, I hope one day you'll think of me as your friend." I knew right there that he was a special teacher.

What struck me most, the reason I so adored him, was not just the way he taught - he was very engaging, involved everyone and encouraged disagreement and conversation - but also, after class was over, he made himself so available. I would eat meals with him, we would walk around campus, sit under trees and talk about things.

He was the first older person, other than my parents or my parents' friends, that I had had any kind of relationship with. He valued my opinion. He encouraged me to follow my dreams, not to worry about prestige or how much money I would make.

We were very close, and on the last day of school, I bought him a briefcase - a very cheap one, I'm sure - with his initials on it. He turned it over every which way, like I had given him a brick of gold. He hugged me, was crying a little bit, and said: "Mitch, you're one of the good ones. Promise me you're gonna stay in touch."

Sadly, I broke that promise for 16 years - not even a phone call. Until one night, there he was on television talking to the journalist Ted Koppel about dying from Lou Gehrig's disease (motor neurone disease). I was very ashamed, so I called him up.

I used to call him Coach, but I'd forgotten that. I felt I had to introduce myself again, I didn't know if he remembered me. The first thing he said was: "How come you didn't call me Coach?" By the end of the conversation I was guilted into taking the two-hour flight from Detroit to Boston to visit him.

He was very afflicted. He was in a wheelchair and couldn't move his legs. It took him five minutes to lift a piece of tomato and put it in his mouth. But he never complained and kept talking about these revelations he was having about life.

I got home and said to myself: "You're 37, he's 78 and dying, but he seems 10 times more content with his life than you are." So I went back, and pretty soon I had a routine to visit every Tuesday and spend the day with him. It turned out to be the last 17 Tuesdays of his life.

Even dying, he just wanted to teach. He was every bit as sharp as he had ever been. We sort of ended up doing a last class together, in which each week was a different subject - marriage, forgiveness, money, guilt. I learned so many great lessons. His favourite quote was from an Auden poem: "We must love each other or die". That was at the core of what he taught: if you have love for one another, for family, for your fellow man, for your community, everything else will be put into perspective.

I ended up writing a book about it all to pay his medical bills - he was in debt beyond his capabilities. Most publishers said no, but I finally got one. The publisher gave us the money for his bills, and three weeks later, he died.

It was a very small book - they only printed 20,000 copies. Then it became something else. Ironically, he never read a word of it, yet that book continues to bring Morrie to people all round the world; he's still teaching and his classroom has grown huge.

That is how you know you've got a good teacher - he's like a big stone in a river, dropped from a great height, the ripples from his existence going on and on and on.

Mitch Albom's new novel, The Time Keeper, is out now. He was talking to Henry Hepburn

Personal profile

Born: New Jersey, 1958

Education: High schools in southern New Jersey and Philadelphia; bachelor's degree in sociology at Brandeis University

Career: Author of memoirs Tuesdays with Morrie and Have a Little Faith, and novels, The Five People You Meet in Heaven and For One More Day. His books have sold more than 33 million copies. He writes for the Detroit Free Press and has been voted the US's No.1 sports columnist 10 times.

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