Mitch Albom ’79

Photo of Mitch Albom, seated at a table, pen in right hand, as he hands a book to a smiling woman.
Mike Lovett
Albom signing copies of “Finding Chika” at Brandeis in January.

Mitch Albom ’79 has built a spectacular career as an author, sports journalist, screenwriter, playwright, radio and television broadcaster, and musician.

Much of this success was set into motion by a life-changing experience at Brandeis.

During his first semester, Albom enrolled in a sociology course with Professor Morrie Schwartz. Only nine students showed up for the first class. Albom — “a typical freshman,” he says — saw this as a red flag (“If I cut class, he’ll know I’m not here”). As Albom edged toward the door, Schwartz, taking attendance, called out his name. Reluctantly, he raised his hand. Schwartz asked him whether he preferred to go by “Mitch” or “Mitchell,” and told him, “I hope one day you’ll think of me as your friend.”

Albom stayed. By the time he graduated, he had taken all of Schwartz’s courses. “I majored in Morrie,” he says.

In 1994, almost two decades after Albom graduated with a sociology degree, their friendship re-blossomed when Schwartz was diagnosed with ALS. Albom spent Tuesdays with Schwartz during Schwartz’s final months, absorbing his wisdom on love, life and death.

The sessions became the basis of Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” the most successful memoir of all time, with more than 17 million copies sold worldwide. Published in 1997, the book launched Albom’s career as a bestselling author. Collectively, his books have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. Several have been made into Emmy Award-winning television movies.

“‘Tuesdays With Morrie,’” Albom says, “never would have happened if Brandeis weren’t the kind of school where you could have the relationship Morrie and I had.” The university “obviously had a profound effect on my life.”

Albom experienced a second life-changing moment 10 years ago, not long after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti and he went to Port-au-Prince to offer what help he could. One day, as he walked through unimaginable devastation, a little girl and boy grasped his hands and led him to an orphanage now called the Have Faith Haiti Mission. Albom helped raise funds to rebuild the orphanage. Today, he operates it.

It was there, in 2013, that Albom first met Chika Jeune, the little girl at the center of his most recent memoir, “Finding Chika.” When the 5-year-old orphanage resident was diagnosed with a rare pediatric brain tumor in 2015, Albom and his wife, Janine, brought her to the U.S., cared for her and tried to find a cure, until she died at age 7. Along the way, they became a family.

Like “Tuesdays With Morrie,” “Finding Chika” is about what Albom learned from someone in the last stages of life. Chika taught Albom a “sense of wonder,” he says. “She existed way down low where the caterpillars and the worms and the rocks and the pebbles were. Every bit of it fascinated her.”

Chika also taught him about marriage. Albom had married late and never had children. “I worried about having kids,” he says. “Would I be a good father? Would there be enough time? I selfishly worried how it might affect my career, and, even more selfishly, I worried about what it would do to my relationship with my wife.”

Instead, Albom says, Chika taught him that when a child comes into your life, “not only do you not lose your spouse, but you discover this whole other side of them, this rich, loving, nurturing side. It made me realize how foolish I had been when I was younger. And how lucky I was to be experiencing moments like these.

“Chika is now and forever going to be an empty chair at my table.”

What was your idea of perfect happiness when you were at Brandeis?

A meatball sub at 3 a.m. and no early-morning classes.

Who was your favorite Brandeis professor?

Morrie Schwartz.

Where did you usually spend Saturday night?

Hanging out in Boston’s Kenmore Square or at the Coop in Harvard Square.

If you could be any other Brandeisian, who would it be?

Probably Morrie. I was his long-term graduate assistant.

What is the most important value you learned at Brandeis?

I learned to trust my inner voice. Morrie helped me a lot with that. Before coming to Brandeis, I didn’t have an inner voice, but I found it at Brandeis.


What was the most important shortcut you learned in college?

If you don’t start your paper until the night before it’s due, go to bed and get up at 3 a.m. Write it in the morning, and show up at the end of class to turn it in. I can’t tell you how many times I employed this particular approach, which turned out to be great training for a journalist and a novelist.

Which talent did Brandeis help you develop most?

I know everyone would like me to say writing, but the truth is I didn’t start writing until several years out of Brandeis. My talents were more in reading and in music. I was in a band at Brandeis, and my musical talent got a lot better as a result.

What do you wish you had studied harder?

History. When I was at Brandeis, there was a tendency to focus more on the “now.” I didn’t spend enough time diving into the “then.”

What three words of advice would you give to current Brandeis students?

Find your Morrie.

If you could go back to college, what would you do differently?

I would worry much less about the classes I could get a good grade in and dive into things that would have made me more well-read and a better-rounded student. We were all a little too concerned with our GPAs back then. I would take everything pass/fail.

What would your friends say is your greatest strength?

Professionally, my ability to tell a story. Personally, my affinity for helping children in need. It dominates my life these days.

What would your friends say is your greatest weakness?

There isn’t enough room in this magazine to list them all. At the top would be not being on time; forgetting things; thinking I can squeeze yet another thing into the day, when I can’t.

What book do you read again and again?

“Gilead,” “A River Runs Through It” and “Jim the Boy.” They give me a great sense of comfort and inspire me with what I think is brilliant writing.

What movie changed your life?

“It’s a Wonderful Life.” In a certain way, all my novels owe a little something to the premise that one life affects the world. I watch it religiously every year.

Which possession do you most like to look at?

The picture of my wife, myself and Chika. That would be the only thing I would grab if my house were burning.

Whom would you like to sing a duet with?

Bruce Springsteen.

Which deadly sin is your middle name?

I’ve managed to make it this far in life without any sin in my middle name. I’m going to see if I can last the rest of my years without one.

Which bad break was your biggest blessing?

Not making it in the music business, because it nudged me over to the writing business, and I’ve been happy there ever since.

If you could climb into a time machine, whom would you like to hang out with?

Thomas Edison. Then I could say, “Nah, that’s not a good idea.”

On your deathbed, what will you be most grateful for?

The love that I have been blessed with from my family, my friends and my kids in Haiti.