He is only one man, as he’ll be the first to tell you, and he had a fine staff at the TV show “Nightline.” But at some point, 10 springtimes ago, Ted Koppel decided to devote a program to a dying old professor from Brandeis University, whose terrible decay from ALS had become his final lesson in life.
It wasn’t a popular idea. Koppel’s boss at ABC News, Roone Arledge, hated it. Death? Decay? Who wants that at 11:30 at night?
But Koppel stuck by his guns. He did the interview. And his subject, an elfin man with a crooked-tooth smile, went from teaching a handful of visitors to teaching millions.
He was only one man, Morrie Schwartz, and he had no aspirations of fame. By the time Koppel contacted him, he was already in a wheelchair, his legs all but useless, his swallowing difficult
But Morrie did what Morrie did, which was state the truth as he saw it, with blunt, funny, poignant sentences. He first told Koppel he thought he was a narcissist. He later told him “we must love each other or die,” quoting his favorite poet, Auden. Near the end, he told Koppel he hoped to become an angel.
One interview begat a second and a third. Millions of viewers were moved by Morrie’s honesty and courage.
I was one of them.
A SMALL MEMOIR
I was only one person, nobody special, just a former student of Morrie’s back at Brandeis. I had lost touch through the years, chasing my career. But after seeing the first “Nightline” interview, I was so shocked – and embarrassed by my absence – I went back to visit him, on a Tuesday, and one Tuesday begat another and another. To pay his medical bills, I found a publisher to print a small memoir of our visits.
The book was called “Tuesdays With Morrie.” It was only one book, but some people say it changed their lives.
Not as much as it changed mine.
When Koppel signed off the air last Tuesday night after 25 years of hosting “Nightline,” he looked back at his interviews with Morrie, and I was honored to be a part of that show. But what struck me was the ending of the program, when Koppel, in typical humility, suggested his name would soon fade from public recognition, just as the names of TV news legends Eric Severeid or Chet Huntley had begun fading already.
DALAI LAMA, TAMMY FAYE
I can’t argue with his premise. The public has a short memory. But through the years, Koppel did something exceptional. He tried to teach instead of entertain. He broadcast from the Middle East, from the middle of a war, from town meetings across America. He got famous faces from the Dalai Lama to Tammy Faye Baker to face blunt questioning for more than a 20-second sound bite.
He took chances, whether reading the names of dead soldiers in Iraq, or giving a dying professor one last class.
And in doing so, Koppel, only one man, touched countless others. Who knows how many people were enlightened or motivated by the subjects “Nightline” covered?
Koppel prefers a newsman’s neutrality, something sorely missing in TV news today, but he flew to Morrie’s memorial service, unannounced, so we know he has a heart. And he fought to the bitter end to keep “Nightline” from morphing into another sugar-ball broadcast. So we know he has conviction.
But in doing good, honest stories for so many years, he has something else. He has a legacy: the power of one person to affect another and another. I am living proof of that. And if I never said the words “thank you” to Ted Koppel, I am saying them now.
He will be missed.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Mitch will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” at 2 p.m. Saturday at Borders Books, Arborland in Ann Arbor