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On the 25th anniversary of 'Tuesdays with Morrie,' the teaching goes on

Mitch Albom and Morrie Schwartz hold hands on Oct. 3, 1995.
©Heather Pillar
Mitch Albom and Morrie Schwartz hold hands on Oct. 3, 1995.

Mitch Albom was intent on chronicling the Tuesdays he spent with Morrie Schwartz, his favorite college professor who was facing Lou Gehrig's disease. Albom's only goal was to write a book to pay for Schwartz' medical bills.

But publisher after publisher rejected his book proposal. Some said Albom's story of reconnecting with his professor who was determined to teach a final class on life's lessons was too much of a "downer." But Doubleday took a chance 25 years ago this month and published Tuesdays with Morrie in a limited press run.

There were no reviews at the outset. And mixed reviews in the early days.

Eventually, readers spread the news by word of mouth. Albom made an appearance on Oprah. Doubleday says to date, Tuesdays with Morrie has sold nearly 18 million copies globally and has been translated into 48 languages. It's one of the best-selling memoirs in the history of publishing.

"I'm a much different person than I was when I first started visiting him," Albom told NPR. "And I'm happy to give him credit for that."

At its core, the memoir is about the power of relationship — between a professor and his student, between a man approaching his 80s and one not yet out of his 30s, and one whose accumulated life experiences can be passed down to a former student and then to the world at large, literally.

Schwartz established a rapport on Day One of class

To understand how their relationship developed, wind the clock back to the 1970s, when Albom was a freshman at Brandeis University. Arriving for sociology class, he saw a dozen or so students gathered and figured it might not be easy to cut such a small class and go unnoticed. But before he could sneak out, the professor called attendance in alphabetical order, beginning with Albom.

"Mitchell?" the professor asked.

Albom raised his hand.

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

"Mitch. My friends call me Mitch," he said.

"And, Mitch?"

"Yes?" Albom replied.

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

Albom stayed in that class and took every lecture Schwartz offered during his undergraduate years. They had lunch together, and Albom visited Schwartz' home. At graduation, he promised to stay in touch.

As often happens with such promises, life intervenes. There was not so much as a phone call or email from Albom to Schwartz in 16 years.

Nightline brought Schwartz back into Albom's life

Then, late one night in March 1995, Albom was channel surfing and heard Ted Koppel say something at the top of Nightline that got his attention:

"Who is Morrie Schwartz, and why by the end of the night are so many of you going to care about him?"

Koppel explained that Schwartz was terminally ill — a disease medically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — but there was no curling up in the fetal position. Schwartz wanted to use whatever time he had left to teach about life to whoever would listen.

"When I saw Morrie on Nightline, the horror of the fact that he was going to die was mixed with the guilt that I felt over not contacting him for 16 years," Albom said.

So, he worked up the courage to call the professor he had called "Coach." He got through to his nurse, who handed Schwartz the phone.

"I said, 'Professor Schwartz, my name is Mitch Albom. I was a student of yours in the '70s. I don't know if you remember me.' And the first thing he said to me was 'How come you didn't call me 'Coach'?"

That's all Albom had to hear and soon reconnected with Morrie, the start of more than a dozen Tuesday sessions.

As he faced death, Schwartz offered lessons in life

Among Schwartz' regrets during his conversations with Albom was how young people grasped onto what he called "the major cultural values, like money status and power ... and then you find out it's not a good life. It's too empty. There's no real substantial meaning but by that time it's too late."

What stunned Albom during his Tuesday visits was how others who came to cheer up Schwartz often left his office an hour later in tears because Schwartz turned the tables on them and asked them about their problems — their love life, divorce or job.

"'I don't understand — you're the one who's dying, why don't you accept their sympathy? Why are you spending time advising people on THEIR lives,' " Albom recalled. "And he said, 'Mitch, why would I ever take from people like that? Taking just makes me feel like I'm dying. Giving makes me feel like I'm living.' "

That's when the trajectory of Albom's life started to change from someone he described as a "self-absorbed 100-hour-a-week journalist to someone asked to speak at funerals and hospice groups."

Albom said that line from Morrie — that giving makes you feel more alive than taking — was the beginning of his philanthropic work.

Schwartz' final request

Today, Albom still writes sports columns and does a daily radio show, but his passion is the work he does with an umbrella charity organization in Detroit and the monthly visits he makes to the orphanage he runs in Haiti.

"We have 60-plus kids," he said. "Many of them come up here. I have one with me right now, a 7-month-old. I'm changing diapers in my 60s."

When the baby had arrived at the orphanage, Nadie was suffering from severe malnutrition, so Albom brought her to Michigan where he hopes he and others who are helping can nurse her back to health in three months and return her to Port-Au-Prince.

The last Tuesday Albom visited Schwartz ended up being days before the professor's death in November 1995. Schwartz asked his student to visit his grave, have a sandwich and bring a blanket.

"He wanted me to talk to him at his grave. And I said, 'You want me to sit at your tombstone and talk to the air like a crazy person?' And he said, yes, just like we're talking now," Albom said.

"'Well, Morrie it's not going to be like we're talking now because let's face it you won't be able to talk back,' " he recalled. "And he looked at me as if I were being very naive. And he said, 'Mitch, I'll make a deal after I'm dead. You talk, I'll listen.' "

Then as now, Albom talks and Schwartz listens.

And as the last four words of Tuesdays with Morrie say: The teaching goes on.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.