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A Professor's Final Class

A Professor's Final Class

By Lawrence Henley

Mentors truly are special people. By and large, the accomplished and talented in society choose to spend their valuable time in pursuit of their own dreams and accomplishments. Contrastingly, mentors selflessly invest significant chunks of their own time and resources in the futures of others, not limiting themselves to self-indulgence. From mentors, we learn the essentials necessary to attain future career success. Yet the best mentors also can influence how we learn to handle life’s most difficult situations, affecting our total human experience. Tuesdays with Morrie is the extraordinary story of one such mentor.

Is mentoring essential to teaching others to succeed, or has it been overhyped? It is a word that’s seen and heard constantly in all media. Schools and training programs have embraced the concept. Most professional organizations have programs to mentor newer members, and the vast majority of mid-sized to large employers these days offer some form of mentoring for new employees. Adults mentor youth. Teens mentor pre-teens. Most of us can recall a mentor that served as a conduit toward success, which certainly validates the mentoring concept.

As a rule, mentors bond with us while we’re young and inexperienced, entangled in the puzzlements of youth. They work with us, sharing experience and helping us to see how we might correct our missteps. Because of our dependency we easily develop special feelings for them while they see us through.

Then suddenly, as quickly as they arrived, our mentors disappear. It’s nobody’s fault, and it isn’t because they no longer care. The time arrives when we’re ready to move on and put the teachings of mentors into practice. Others are waiting to be touched by these special people. Once we’ve received their best, we learn to stand on our own. The trouble is, when we lose track of a mentor it’s often forever.

How special it would be if, as adults, we could regain that opportunity and take a graduate refresher course from mentors. Surely they’ve accumulated life experience since last contact, and, just as certainly, we have more to learn. Lucky Mitch Albom. He got exactly that chance.

In his Brandeis University cap and gown, Mitch pledged to stay in touch with his favorite professor on commencement day in 1979. Morrie Schwartz (nickname “Coach”) surely had heard that from students a thousand times. Life gets in the way. Work. Work. More work. After matriculation Mitch completely dropped the ball on his promise to the professor, engorged in a whirlwind career as a sports columnist (jazz piano wasn’t his golden ticket). Further complicating matters, he met an attractive vocalist named Janine and married her. Albom hopped onto a treadmill he couldn’t master. Mitch struggled with the challenges of balancing family with career, and attempts at improving his quality of life were thwarted by lack of time for contemplation, coupled with bouts of denial that a problem existed.

If not for an ABC News Ted Koppel profile of Morrie Schwartz’s struggle with ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) Albom’s radar wouldn’t have blipped in time. A chance hotel room channel-surf of Nightline delivered the cold reality that there would be scant time to visit and say farewell to his fading professor.

On a midsummer Tuesday afternoon in 1995, thirty-seven year-old Mitch navigated his rental car into Morrie’s driveway in West Newton, Massachusetts. When Morrie’s wife, Charlotte, opened the screen door to wave him in, Albom had no idea how far Morrie’s physical being had declined since the Koppel taping. Recalling that Schwartz loved to eat and dance, he brought gourmet treats. Coach was still able to appreciate a few morsels. Dancing, however, was now possible only in daydreams.

Astonishingly, Morrie’s brilliant mind was unaffected. Their initial reunion provided little clue that the next fourteen Tuesdays would constitute one final semester in Albom’s education (and, thankfully, in ours). It would be a crash course in dealing with humanity, Thesis required. The topic? Finding happiness.

Albom’s second chance to bond with his mentor was a race with the calendar. Morrie’s Tuesdays were growing scarce; yet his need to teach was equal to Mitch’s need to learn. In 1994, the professor had been diagnosed as terminal. After toughing out his last semester at Brandeis, Morrie was forced to say goodbye to teaching, his great passion. These final Tuesdays represented a last chance for both men. After their reunion, each would make the most of the dwindling months. These lessons, taught every Tuesday for fourteen weeks, proved forever transformative for Mitch Albom.

One would surmise that life in a rapidly degenerative state would destroy the spirit long before the disease was finished with the body. Not with Morrie, no chance. Teaching and promoting personal growth in others had been his entire life. While the malaise had forced his retirement, Morrie couldn’t shake his love of pedagogy. His ability to teach made him continue to feel alive. The Coach found a way to extend his career. Through teaching Mitch he would leave his values and philosophy behind for anyone who would listen. Mitch Albom could channel Morrie, establishing a legacy.

In the beginning, Mitch intended to make only one trip to West Newton. Charmed back for a second round, he found himself under Morrie’s spell, addicted to spending Tuesdays with the Coach. Soon nothing was more important than their time together. Not risking the loss of precious words to the human memory, the journalist asked permission to use a recorder. Only half-jokingly, Morrie assigned Albom a thesis project, and that idea became Tuesdays with Morrie.

Speaking too freely about the contents of Morrie’s teachings might dampen the viewing experience for playgoers, so, giving hints only, let’s cover the titles from Morrie’s lesson plan: The World, Feeling Sorry for Yourself, Regrets, Death, Family, Emotions, The Fear of Aging, Money, How Love Goes On, Marriage, Our Culture, Forgiveness, The Perfect Day, and Goodbye (the final lesson). Through these lessons Albom experienced enormous personal growth. Tremendous professional success would follow.

The seasons changed, summer to autumn, and winter. Each week Albom scrambled to work a flight to Logan Airport into his chaotic schedule. Initially mobile enough to walk from room to room with a cane, Morrie later became restricted to a wheelchair. Closer to the end, Morrie further regressed, being lifted from and into bed, chair, and commode. With humor, Morrie dreaded the day he would require help to “wipe his [rear end].” That unwelcome day arrived quickly. Blasts of machine oxygen and vigorous massages (severe therapist beatings, in truth) became critical to loosening the toxins in Morrie’s body for elimination.

As a result of a year of in-home care and physical therapy, Morrie and Charlotte had enormous medical bills to cover. Albom, already published as a sportswriter, shuddered to think of Morrie’s wisdom and spirit disappearing with his physical being. The former proposed an idea that would preserve these intimate Tuesday sessions in book form. If a publishing deal for a memoir could be found, the debt could potentially be eliminated. After numerous rejections Albom sealed the deal.

Albom parlayed his experiences with Morrie into new careers. Tuesdays with Morrie, his first literary foray outside sports, became a worldwide hit and sold tens of millions. His follow-up titles, The Five People You Meet in Heaven and For One More Day have also sold stupendously. Today, Albom is also a fixture on the national speaking circuit.

Mitch was fortunate to know Morrie. We are equally fortunate that Tuesdays with Morrie (now the biggest selling print memoir of all time) was subsequently adapted for screen (in 1999, starring the late Jack Lemmon) and stage (in 2001, with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher [A Picasso and The Fabulous Invalids]). The show you will see at the Randall L. Jones Theatre this fall [2009] opened off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in February 2002, and has since been produced numerous times throughout the world.