Interview: Mitch Albom - Conversations from the edge of life

A reunion with his tutor, who was dying, changed Mitch Albom's life and spawned a book that has taken America by storm. He talked to Sharon Krum

In 1979, at a basketball game inside the Brandeis University gymnasium in Massachusetts, a throng of students began to chant rhythmically until they approached fever pitch. "We're number one! We're number one!" they bellowed, and would have continued unabated had sociology Professor Morrie Schwartz not risen to his feet. "What's wrong with being number two?" he yelled over the din. The chanting subsided, the student body stunned into silence. Hello? This was America. Winning was not everything, it was the only thing. Who wanted to be number two?

For sports columnist Mitch Albom, this story of his mentor's playful attempt to push the "me generation" to think beyond the glory of the finish line perfectly encapsulates everything you need to know about Morrie Schwartz. An anonymous sociology professor in life, in death Morrie Schwartz has become an American icon. Dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), his parting words to Albom, published posthumously as Tuesdays With Morrie: an old man, a young man and life's greatest lesson, has become this year's Cinderella story, with 1.4 million copies sold. In the US booksellers have even coined a separate word for it. They call it the "Morrie phenomenon".

Now you may be tempted before reading any further to dismiss Tuesdays with Morrie as yet another mushy self-help book for navel-gazing baby boomers, urging them to get out of the rat race and stop and smell the roses. And Albom's journey back into the bosom of his mentor is high on schmaltz: one is never allowed to forget that with each chapter death looms; the homespun advice Morrie dispenses can be found in hundreds of motivational books as well as on Oprah every afternoon(Albom, in fact, appeared on Oprah); and be warned, Tuesdays with Morrie is served up with dollops of syrup. But what saves it from descending completely into sugary schlock is Albom's interweaving Morrie's homilies with a recounting of his own transformation from fast track, abrupt yuppie to sensitive new age millennium guy. No doubt Albom could have found the message about love of self and community anywhere had he gone looking. It was the messenger, the first adult male in Albom's life who mentored him, who made the difference.

When Mitch Albom sought an audience with Morrie after a 16-year absence he was, by his own admission, not a nice guy. "I was a workaholic. I never stopped. I lived in fifth gear. I bought cars. I invested in stocks. I made more money than I had ever imagined." In fact Albom had become the yuppie stereotype Schwartz loathed and always railed against. After leaving Brandeis University and failing to ignite a career as a musician, he turned to sports journalism instead. Soon he was rubbing shoulders with millionaire athletes, expounding his views on radio and television and penning a column in the Detroit Free Press. For 11 years running he was named America's top sports columnist by the Associated Press. He was CEO of his own mini empire, and by 1995 Morrie Schwartz had long disappeared from his radar screen.

Then in March Albom was watching television when he saw his old professor, still living in Newton, Massachusetts, being interviewed on the subject of death. His own. Schwartz, 79, had been diagnosed with ALS, and was using the medium to deliver a seminar to Americans on what it was like to die. The country was mesmerised. Albom, hundreds of miles away in Detroit, said he was seized by guilt and yearning to see his old mentor before the grim reaper came knocking. He flew straight to Newton to say goodbye to the man who once played surrogate father to a shy 16-year-old undergraduate from New Jersey. "My own father didn't talk a lot about feelings or emotions," he says.

From the first sociology lecture, Albom was drawn to the articulate, gentle man who cared nothing for power or prestige, joked about "fat cats" and implored his students to follow their passions. (Morrie gave all his students As during the Vietnam war so they could keep their deferments and stay out of the army.) The student and teacher began spending time together outside of class, even sharing meals in the cafeteria. On his graduation Albom handed Morrie a monogrammed briefcase as a gift and promised to keep in touch. "But I didn't and I still feel guilt about it. I don't see this book as absolving me of the 16 years I didn't see him. I would have been a better person if I had seen him once a year for 16 years, rather than 16 times before he died."

Albom was too busy buried in the macho world of win and lose, to make time for an aging professor whose touchy-feely approach to life was now way out of synch with his own philosophy. So seeing him on television was, he says, something akin to science fiction, blasting him back to another life.

Initially it was to be just one visit. Albom said he was struck by Morrie's attitude to dying: embracing the process with a rare combination of acceptance, stoicism and wit. (Asking to be cremated, he said, "make sure they don't overcook me".) At first he talked of how dying made one come alive, later of his sadness that the boomer generation had sacrificed their families to the god of work. "He said love was the only thing that was important and once you learn to die you learn to live. If you are fully alive to the prospect of dying, you really start reprioritising your life."

For Albom the idea of repeat visits first came to him at the grass courts of Wimbledon. Always a fan of British tabloids, he admitted that on trips across the pond he used to enjoy the gossip and skyscraper headlines. But suddenly he was turned off, thinking now of nothing but Morrie. He was putting in eight hour days in the centre court press box, but still couldn't get the professor out of his mind. And when run down by a horde of photographers chasing Andre Agassi and Brooke Shields one morning, Morrie's warning about people who waste their lives chasing the wrong things flashed like a sign. Back in the US he called and asked for weekly meetings. The ailing professor chose Tuesday and Albom flew 700 miles round trip each week to hear Morrie muse on what life had taught him.

"If someone else had tried to pass on the same kind of wisdom, I admit, I wouldn't have listened. It was because it was Morrie. I was at that haughty point in my life in my late 30s where I thought, who has anything to tell me?" Yet the professor had much to tell and Albom began taping their Tuesday conversations.

At this point there was no thought of a book. But soon he learned that Morrie would be leaving his family with massive medical bills after death, and Albom proposed that they publish Morrie's thoughts. The professor was thrilled. "He said, this will be our final thesis together. And I'm thinking, oh great, homework." (The book advance paid Morrie's medical bills, and further profits are split between the Schwartz family and Albom).

Albom drew up a list of topics he wanted Morrie to elaborate on. Death. Fear. Ageing. Greed. Marriage. Family. Society. Forgiveness. Living a meaningful life. "I'm on the last great journey here and people want me to tell them what to pack," Morrie would say. Each Tuesday the ever weakening professor would impart his philosophy about living a satisfying, creative life. He told Albom that ageing was to be embraced, not feared. Money and acquisition were pointless, family was everything. He said that the secret to a lasting marriage was compromise, communication and common values. He waxed lyrical about forgiveness, that one should die with no regrets. "He believed if we don't love one another we perish, and that death ends a life but not a relationship."

Morrie's lectures were hardly the stuff of radical new thought, but they touched something in an America where so many baby boomers have lost their way and seem desperate for someone to tell them how to inject meaning into their wealthy lives. The same was true for Albom. Perceptible changes started happening, he says. With every new conversation he would return to Detroit and hold his life up to the light, increasingly disappointed at what he saw. And he changed. Radically. Becoming Professor Schwartz's student in mid-life forged such radical changes in him that he says he understands the shock factor among old friends. It must be like meeting someone who has given up drinking to go into AA. Albom, once the frenetic sports writer who loved the adrenaline of a game, the pressure of a deadline, now visits mountain ranges to sit and think.

"My priorities are completely different. I have gone from writing four or five columns a week at my paper to two. I now get three months off a year at my insistence. My emphasis is now on time off instead of making money." He says he spends more time with his wife Janine, a singer, and his parents, and has repaired a fragile relationship with a younger brother. "I find myself spending time in places that are beautiful and contemplative. I used to take vacations that were so busy, now I sit and look and think." Albom also is trying to have children. "Now it seems to me life would be incomplete if I didn't."

But the question remains. Was Albom going to have your standard order baby boomer mid-life crisis followed by a massive life shift anyway, or was the professor the sole determinant in his metamorphosis? "If there had been no Morrie, honestly, I wouldn't have changed. I would still be a workaholic. I mean I hadn't had a wake-up call up until that point, so why wouldn't I continue that way? It was Morrie, someone I loved, who forced me to take stock."

Morrie died in November 1995. I asked if having a role model for dying positively means he will approach his own death differently. Yes, says Albom. "I would lying if I said I would laugh in the face of death. Morrie was afraid at the end, no question. But what I observed from Morrie wasn't just courage, it was that he had no regrets at the end. I am trying to get to that point."

'Tuesdays with Morrie' by Mitch Albom is published by Little, Brown, price pounds 12.99.

WHAT MORRIE SAID...

About death

'Dying is only one thing to be sad over. Living unhappily is something else.'

About life

'Everyone knows they're going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently. Every day ask, is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?'

About family

'There is no foundation, no secure ground upon which people may stand today if it isn't the family. If you don't have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from family, you don't have much.'

About love

'Love is supremely important. As Auden said, love each other or perish.'

About money

'Devote yourself to loving others, to your community, and to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning, You notice there's nothing in there about a salary.'

About marriage

'If you don't respect the other person, you're gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don't know how to compromise, you're gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don't have a common set of values in life, you're gonna have a lot of trouble.'

About regret

'You can't get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened.'

About forgiveness

'Make peace. You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you.'

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