'The Wisdom of Morrie': Last words from a beloved Brandeis professor

Beloved Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz died in 1995 after being diagnosed with ALS. But he has been immortalized in the memoir Tuesdays with Morrie.

 MORRIE during his illness in 1995, with his son Rob.  (photo credit: Rob Schwartz)
MORRIE during his illness in 1995, with his son Rob.
(photo credit: Rob Schwartz)

Rob Schwartz is quick to point out that nobody was actively dying when his father, the beloved Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, penned his advice-packed book, recently published as The Wisdom of Morrie.

“This was his last book after a period in which he struggled with severe asthma attacks in his early seventies. ALS hadn’t touched him yet,” Schwartz told the Magazine in a Zoom interview from Massachusetts.

“People associate dealing with death with my dad because that’s what he talked about in Mitch Albom’s memoir, Tuesdays with Morrie, when he was dying and being interviewed by his former student. This book is different. It’s really about aging, remaining vibrant, and enjoying this phase of your life.”

Quick refresher. Tuesdays with Morrie, published in 1997, is a memoir divided into 14 different “days” in which sports writer Mitch Albom recalls sitting down with his former college professor and discussing topics related to a meaningful life, final lessons from a beloved teacher dying of ALS. 

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a rare neurological disease with a life expectancy upon diagnosis of two to five years. Morrie was 78 when he was diagnosed with ALS in July 1994. He passed away in November 1995.

 A WINTER shot of Morrie in Brookline, Massachusetts.  (credit: Rob Schwartz)
A WINTER shot of Morrie in Brookline, Massachusetts. (credit: Rob Schwartz)

Schwartz is mindful that Tuesdays with Morrie was one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, a memoir that made his father posthumously a household name. Tuesdays with Morrie far exceeded anyone’s expectations, staying on the bestseller charts for years, selling more than 18 million copies to date. Having been made into a movie, an off-Broadway play, and performed in multiple languages on stages across the globe, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that there’s some pressure on Rob Schwartz in undertaking the editing of his father’s last book.

“I would like to say no, but perhaps the answer is yes,” Schwartz laughed while on vacation in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “I certainly have been working very hard to get the word out about The Wisdom of Morrie. My father wrote this book from first to last before I started to edit it. In 1992 he put it in a desk drawer, and nobody thought about it until I found it 10 years later. By the time I found the manuscript, Tuesdays with Morrie was a huge success. People find it unbelievable, since my father is a public figure through Tuesdays with Morrie, that he didn’t know how to publish a non-academic book in the 1990s, so the book just sat there.”

Schwartz noted that as an academic, his father could be wordy. 

“That’s why editing was so important,” he said, calling The Wisdom of Morrie bookends to Mitch Albom’s memoir. “The warmth that comes through with the student-teacher relationship is also the way that my father relates to people. Both have the same thing at their core – my father’s philosophy about life. But they’re very different books; in fact, opposite in style. Tuesdays is a very slim volume with a very concise use of words. My father was an academic, although The Wisdom of Morrie is not an academic book,” he pointed out.

THE BOOK The Wisdom of Morrie was initiated by a friend who suggested that Morrie write a book about aging after his retirement at 70 from Brandeis University.

In it, he writes, “After retirement, I faced the question: ‘What should I do with the rest of my life?’ I recall, at the height of my struggle with asthma, trying to fight off despair about ever getting back to a place where I was content with my functioning and my feelings. I remember the pull just to ‘give up’ – surrender to the illness and sink into inactivity, depression, and minimal existence.

“I also remember the small voice in me saying, ‘No, I will not quit. I’m going to fight to regain my foothold in life. If I can’t control the illness, I’m not going to let it control my moods, attitudes, and emotional states.’ As it became more difficult for me, I became more determined to learn something, to derive some benefit from this misery.”

Schwartz recalled, “It’s very sad to think about what my dad had to suffer through, but the dignity he showed and the bravery was so inspiring for so many people; we can take comfort in that.”

At the time Morrie that had been working on his book about the aging process, his younger son, Rob, had been traveling in Asia and had just returned home to Boston in the summer of 1989.

“During those four months he was writing this book, it was exactly when I was living at home, and so we discussed his ideas on a daily basis. I had studied philosophy at university, so I like abstract thinking, figuring things out. I was very happy to talk about how to approach the issues he was thinking about. He also thought that things in the book, like laughter, meditation, and spiritual connection, could apply to any age,” Schwartz recounted.

“My father retells in his book how Norman Cousins cured himself of a life-threatening disease by watching comedy movies. My father loved all kinds of comedians, especially Jewish humor, and I remember a lot of laughter, joking, and humorous ways of saying things.” When it came to spiritual connection, Schwartz noted it as a means of expanding awareness but observed, “My father didn’t say whether it’s an established religion but rather whatever you think you should follow.” 

Meditation was another point Schwartz emphasized as adding to his father’s quality of life as he aged. 

“It really increased in the last years of his life,” Schwartz recalled. “As his body was shutting down, he was increasing his meditation routine. A teacher from Cambridge Insight Meditation would come to the house.”

Rob Schwartz, now just over 60, said that the thoughts on aging his father offers in The Wisdom of Morrie impact him now as they did when his father was alive. 

“I take the advice very seriously and find it useful for me. I would preface that by saying that the advice woven into this book is how Morrie lived his life in general. Because he was my father, he served as a role model for me, so I think I naturally incorporated some of his ideas into my life before I started working on this manuscript.”

For 25 years, Rob Schwartz had an active career in journalism in Japan as Asia bureau chief for Billboard Magazine and script editor on Newsline, a program on the NHK World English language news channel. His next project is Onetopia, with 100% of the proceeds going to charities and projects to promote mental health awareness. 

 ROB’S PARENTS, Charlotte and Morrie Schwartz, attend a party in the late 1980s.  (credit: Rob Schwartz)
ROB’S PARENTS, Charlotte and Morrie Schwartz, attend a party in the late 1980s. (credit: Rob Schwartz)

MORRIE SCHWARTZ, a luminary in the field of sociology, was awarded a full professorship at Brandeis University on the merit of groundbreaking research he conducted with his wife, Charlotte, in the 1950s. She, too, was a powerhouse, in an unusual career for someone born in the early 1920s, working both as a sociologist and psychologist from the1940s to the 2010s. Being widowed late in life to a world-famous husband, she paradoxically was, according to her two sons, Rob and Jonathan, a very private person. Curiously, maddeningly so, very little is divulged in The Wisdom of Morrie to get a sense of Morrie’s personal relationship with his life partner of 44 years.

“I’d go to Boston two or three times a year every year from Japan, so we’d talk about the book face to face. Traveling back to Boston periodically was one of the things that made the process slow. Another thing is that editing this book was part of the grieving process for me. So that was slow and difficult in some ways, said Rob Schwartz.

“My father said what gives your life meaning is your relationships. You need to concentrate on the important relationships, pay attention, and nurture those relationships,” he recalled.

“As you can imagine, my mother, who was an academic, had concerns over certain paragraphs. The point of one of the two essays I wrote for the book is to show how much she influenced my editing. I took her concerns into account when she felt the content didn’t serve the overall purpose of the book.

“That’s why I wrote a second essay about my mother’s career in The Wisdom of Morrie,” Rob Schwartz explained. “She never did get her due for editing my father’s seminal work, The Mental Hospital [1954, with Alfred Stanton], editing The Nurse and the Mental Patient [1956], and co-authoring with my father Social Approaches to Mental Patient Care [1964]. The latter two books were also important contributions to the field of mental health care.”

The photographs included in The Wisdom of Morrie pay a loving tribute to a rich relationship in the early years between towering intellectual equals. Schwartz notes about his mother, “She worked in the psychiatric clinic of MIT, publishing many papers with MIT psychiatrist-in-chief professor Merton Kahne.” Yet he acknowledges quite emphatically that she deliberately kept herself out of the limelight.

Charlotte Schwartz passed away peacefully in 2022 at the age of 98 in Boston, where she too maintained a private psychological practice into her nineties.

“Truthfully, for a long time, I was thinking, ‘Should I publish first my father’s book about aging or stories about my father?’” Schwartz recalled, adding, “As you can see, I chose to publish my father’s book first. It just made sense. He’s a public figure. He’d written this book a long time ago, and I think it has a lot to offer about aging and leading a more vibrant life.” 

Charlotte’s absence from The Wisdom of Morrie is reason alone to look forward to Rob Schwartz’s next book about his formidable family. 

A brief review of Morrie Schwartz’s trajectory to world fame

In the summer of 1994, Morrie received his devastating diagnosis. Soon after new physically debilitating symptoms arose, students and other members of the Brandeis community started gathering in Morrie’s living room, where he did what came most naturally to him. He taught. 

Morrie’s end-of-life lessons became legendary and caught the attention of journalist Jack Thomas, who introduced Boston Globe readers to a different type of spiritual warrior, a man who wasn’t afraid of his own impending death. Through the Boston Globe article, Morrie was discovered by Ted Koppel’s Nightline television news magazine program. In his three interviews with Koppel, Morrie surprised his audience by his willingness to talk candidly about his own impending death as a celebration of life.

Suddenly the entire world knew Morrie, in what became three of Nightline’s record-breaking and most-watched interviews. Morrie’s manuscript about aging with wisdom, tucked in a desk drawer, was all but forgotten. His former student, sports writer Mitch Albom, who caught the Nightline interviews, made a quick decision to get on a plane to Boston to see his former sociology professor. 

One trip led to weekly visits on Tuesdays. When Mitch found out that the family was in danger of losing their home to pay off medical expenses, he offered a percentage of profits from a book to help the family out, a pledge that he honored beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Quotable words from ‘The Wisdom of Morrie

Morrie’s legacy was to give practical advice. His eminently quotable aphorisms on how to deal with illness and death became Morrie in His Own Words, a highly successful sequel following the success of Tuesdays with Morrie

The Wisdom of Morrie similarly offers readers plenty of quotable words on aging gracefully and coming to terms with one’s mortality. 

  • “Let us feel proud and good about our current age and see it as an achievement and a continuation of our special qualities and lives. Let us think of ourselves as a select group to which the price of admission is a minimum of 60 years’ accumulated knowledge, caring and wisdom.” 
  • “Hold steadfastly to your beliefs, values, and convictions, and have these supported and reinforced by others who respect you and share your values.”
  • “I have found that meditation enhances my sense of emotional security.”
  • “Illness, strangely, can also have a positive side. It can help us put our lives in perspective because illness often forces us to take stock of our lives and decide what we really care about or believe to be important.”
  • “Be playful and have fun in circumstances that are appropriate. Look for the humor in a situation. Be non-serious and take things lightly often so that you don’t feel yourself to be a dour person.”
  • “When you have a strong sense of our common humanity, you feel respect for everyone and a responsibility to preserve the entire human community. Your ‘I’ becomes part of the ‘we,’ and your self interweaves with all the selves that constitute humankind.”

Morrie’s advice on aging

  • Protect your physical and mental health. 
  • Treasure your relationships. 
  • Be a mensch. 
  • Stay positive. 
  • And remember that life’s not over yet – there’s still time to become the best person you can be.