Editorial: McCourt drew largest audience of 34 authors

Published 10:30 am Monday, July 27, 2009

July 27, 2009

“Late bloomer” Frank McCourt, not only visited Dowagiac in October 1997, he attracted a larger audience than any other of what is now 34 visiting authors.
“Attendance was 900,” according to Rich Frantz, visiting authors chairman for the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival. “In fact, we had to open a live feed room. According to our agent, when Frank danced at the Dogwood, it was the only time he had done so on the tour.”
The retired New York City schoolteacher late in life launched his literary career with a memoir about his grim upbringing in Limerick, Ireland. The Dogwood, thanks to the recommendation of Judy O’Brien, did well to invite him here before he reached the pinnacle of his fame.
McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for 1996’s “Angela’s Ashes,” written in a disarming child’s voice. His mother Angela died in New York in 1981 of emphysema from smoking, outlived by his alcoholic father, who passed away in Belfast in 1985.
“It’s been an itch for many years,” the oldest of seven children said of the memoir translated into more than 20 languages that sold more than 4 million copies worldwide and became a 1999 movie. “It took me two years and all my life to write this story,” he told Newsweek.
He died of cancer July 19 at 78.
He would have been 79 Aug. 10.
“I certainly couldn’t have written ‘Angela’s Ashes’ when my mother was alive, because she would have been ashamed,” McCourt told the Hartford Courant.
Ironically, when the Daily News interviewed him, discussing the moon landing with Walter Cronkite, who died two days before his death on the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing, was one example McCourt gave of his instant celebrity status after 27 years of anonymously teaching writing at elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.
“Friends of mine write book after book and they got no prizes and I wrote one book and it gets the Pulitzer Prize? What in the hell is going on here? I’m still trying to get used to it,” McCourt told the Daily News that Wednesday evening prior to his sold-out lecture at Central Middle School.
“I’m still trying to get used to the idea that I walk around New York and I’m stopped in the streets. I was anonymous. I was a teacher,” McCourt said. “Last week I was at dinner at the Waldorf tower. I was invited there by Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the (United Nations). This dinner was in honor of (Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright and I found out she specifically asked for me.”
McCourt recalled that the wife of the UN secretary general was seated to his right, followed by Dan Rather, singer Judy Collins, Henry Kissinger, actress Glenn Close and Richardson.
“I’m all the time learning,” McCourt said. “Learning is all that’s left at this phase in my life. If this happened to me 30 years ago, I’d be dead now from whiskey and fornication. I wouldn’t be here. I’d be doing my Dylan Thomas bit up and down the streets of Manhattan.”
McCourt said he felt no pressure to make lightning strike twice with his second book, ” ‘Tis.”
“No, I’m not worried about topping myself,” he told the Daily News. “It will be a different kettle of fish.”
The sequel picked up his story as a young man in New York City without a high-school diploma, working a “series of mean little jobs,” then gaining entry into NYU largely on the basis of describing the many books he read in his “cute brogue.”
At 19, the Brooklyn-born McCourt worked near Grand Central Station at the Biltmore Hotel, where Ivy Leaguers met while he pushed a broom and dustpan as a houseman.
McCourt said he became a teacher “because I couldn’t think of anything else. Journalism would have been the other thing, but I didn’t have enough self-esteem or self-confidence to go up to the New York Daily News or the Times and say, ‘I’d like to be a copyboy.’ ”
Despite his impoverished boyhood, “Our lives had a richness,” McCourt said in Dowagiac. “We were never, ever bored on the streets of Limerick. We never wanted to go home. We were always active. We had no radio, TV, CDs, magazines, books or newspapers.” The afternoon of his visit, McCourt spoke to students at Union High School. “I like that,” he said. “They’re starting out and I’m finishing life, in a way. They have a long way to go, ‘miles to go before they sleep.’ I have a short way to go. It made me go back to my teaching days, which I enjoyed.
“I enjoyed my life as a teacher, which is a very rare thing.”