Mitch Albom was a top-notch sportswriter three decades ago, thank you very much.
He was an award-winning columnist at the Detroit Free Press, had written a couple of books about Michigan sports figures and was popular on radio and television sports shows. People recognized him in airports. “Hey sports guy!” they’d call out, he remembers, as he hustled to catch a flight, “who’s gonna win the Super Bowl?”
Then he wrote a very short book not about sports. It was called “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
It was a memoir about visiting an old college professor who was dying and the final lessons he imparted. Albom’s book, clocking in at just under 200 pages, hit the bestseller charts … and stayed there for years. It sold more than 17.5 million copies (and still counting). It was translated into dozens of languages. Oprah turned it into a movie. It became a cultural touchstone about grief and loss.
After that, people in airports stopped asking about football. They said things like, “Hey, my mother died of cancer. The last thing we did before she died was read your book. Can I talk to you?”
“That began to happen to me multiple times a day,” Albom said in a recent interview, now 64 years old and talking from his home in Michigan. “And when I would go out and speak or talk on behalf of the book or whatever, this would happen hundreds of times. I began to hear so many stories of grief and loss and love — and what happens when you lose love. That totally changed my universe.”
Albom will be at the National Book Festival on Sept. 3 in conversation with David M. Rubenstein to discuss the 25th anniversary of the book, his popular faith-based novels and his philanthropic work in Detroit and Haiti. (He’s still a sportswriter, so he’s probably got a good take on this season’s Super Bowl, too.)
The life-changing event in his life didn’t look like that big a deal at the time.
The book began as a simple project: to help his old professor, Morris “Morrie” Schwartz, pay his end-of-life medical bills. Schwartz, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, taught sociology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where a young Albom took his classes and was touched. Years later, Albom saw Schwartz as a guest on “Nightline,” the television news show hosted by Ted Koppel. He was dying of ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“I just went to visit him because I felt guilty that I hadn’t seen him in 16 years, even though we had been so close,” Albom said. “I … started going every Tuesday and then we started doing this sort of last class and what’s really important in life once you know you’re going to die …. Somewhere during those visits, I found out how in debt he was for his medical bills and that he was going to die and leave an enormous debt. His family was going to possibly have to sell the house just to pay off the bills. And so I got the idea that maybe I could help him pay his bills by writing a book.”
Schwartz died on Nov. 4, 1995. He was 78.
Albom’s book, subtitled “An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson,” was published in 1997. Though numerous publishers had rejected the project, and it started out with a small print run, it quickly became a publishing juggernaut.
Albom, a New Jersey kid, stayed on in Detroit, adopting the city as his adult home. He’s since published several novels, drawing on faith and inspiration. These have also sold millions of copies. The latest, “The Stranger in the Lifeboat,” was published late last year.
“I start with the kind of lesson, or the moral thing that I want to explore, and then I create a story around that,” he said. “The characters, the plot all come from the North Star of what point am I kind of trying to make with this book? In “Stranger in the Lifeboat,” the point was about asking for help, which we all do in our own way.”
He still writes his newspaper column, but says the nine charities he runs take up “60 to 70 percent” of his time. He travels monthly to Haiti to help administer the orphanage he took over after the 2010 earthquake.
“People really took to the lessons that Morrie shared with me, because in the end,” he said, “I realize they were far more universal than they were just between Morrie and me.”
Mitch Albom will be at the National Book Festival on the Pop Lit stage Saturday, Sept. 3, at 11:05 a.m. He will be in conversation with David M. Rubenstein. He will sign books in line 7 from 12:30-1:30 p.m.