March 26, 2008 was an exciting day for me. That was the day that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt visited the RMU campus and spoke at Rogal Chapel. He was in town as part of the Robert Morris University Pittsburgh Speakers Series, and later that evening he would speak to an admiring audience at Heinz Hall. Being a writer, I was overjoyed to have such an accomplished author right here on campus, as were many others who gathered at the chapel to hear him speak. And Mr. McCourt didn’t let us down.
McCourt is best-known for his bestselling Angela’s Ashes (1999), a haunting memoir that recounts McCourt’s unimaginably tragic childhood growing up in abject poverty in Limerick, Ireland. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography in 1997 and was later made into a movie. I had met him once before at a book-signing for Teacher Man (2005) at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Although I only spoke to him briefly, I was pleasantly surprised by his candor and sense of humor in regards to the teaching profession, which is something he knew much about.
After serving in Germany during the Korean War, McCourt used the G.I. Bill to enroll in New York University and later received a master’s degree from Brooklyn College in 1967. His teaching career began at McKee High School where he taught English, and finished 30 years later at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. In Teacher Man, he detailed his experiences in the profession, which for him was at times confusing, frustrating, and unsatisfying. But the brilliant writer and philosopher that he was, McCourt was able to find humor in nearly everything. And in the whole, his book does much more to emphasize the importance and nobility of teaching rather than belittle it.
When he spoke at RMU last year, McCourt again used his biting humor to entertain and enlighten those in attendance, as he spoke of his years in teaching and the importance of the profession. He shared several stories with us, some of which made many of us blush, and all of which drew hearty laughs and sincere smiles. He also underlined the importance of institutions like RMU that emphasized individual attention, small class sizes, and real-world application of what is learned.
I was deeply saddened to hear of Frank McCourt’s passing on July 19. For a 78-year-old, he had the heart and mind of someone decades younger. When he was here at RMU, I was delighted by his razor-sharp wit and youthful exuberance. It wasn’t what I’d expected from a man of his age who had lived through such a trying childhood. His ability to find humor even in the bleakest of situations was admirable, and I think it’s something we can all learn from and benefit from in our own lives.
–Valentine J. Brkich