Brandeis professor immortalized in book

Mitch Albom was a hotshot hustling sportswriter and broadcaster when, a few years ago, he happened to turn on Ted Koppel's "Nightline." What he saw astounded him: The guest was Morrie Schwartz, who had been Albom's favorite professor at Brandeis University.

Though he had vowed not to, Albom had lost touch with Schwartz since his graduation 16 years earlier. Now the older man was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

In his Brandeis sociology classes, which he was determined to continue teaching, Schwartz began discussing what he was learning about the meaning of life as he faced impending death.

Someone at "Nightline" heard about the classes, and Schwartz appeared on the show three times. Those three shows were among the most highly rated in "Nightline" history.

When Albom saw the program, he called Schwartz, then flew to Boston to see his former mentor. He ended up visiting the old professor every week until Schwartz died at the age of 79.

Now a book tells the story of those visits and the lively wisdom Schwartz distilled on living, dying and virtually every other subject under the sun.

What is not so evident from the book, Albom said recently, is the effect his conversations with Schwartz had on his own life, a life in which, he writes, "I buried myself in accomplishments," working, driving, buying, investing and living at breakneck speed.

But the time he spent with Schwartz before his death changed all that. "In his presence, I felt I was pursuing the wrong thing," he said. "He made me see that all these things I was chasing, they weren't what was going to matter to me.

"He would tell me, `You shouldn't wait until you're 78 years old and get sick like me to come to this kind of conclusion.'

"He felt the best weapon in life was to give love, to be loved. He would say this to me over and over again."

Another side effect of the conversations, Albom said, was that both he and Schwartz began to get more in touch with their Jewishness. Schwartz, though he retained a powerful cultural identity as a Jew, had lost all belief in religion during a tough, disillusioning childhood.

"But toward the end," Albom said, "he would say, `I'm starting to think maybe I was wrong, I'm starting to feel a sort of presence in the universe. I don't know if it's God, but it's something higher.'"

What Albom doesn't reveal in the book gives as much insight into his character as it does into Schwartz's. It's the reason he wrote the book: The advance money went to pay Schwartz's enormous medical bills.

"I couldn't sit there and know that Morrie was going to leave his family with this debt, and I could do something about it. That's why I wrote the book," he said.

The student, it seems, learned his old professor's lessons well.