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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Remembering Frank McCourt


“…Worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” Frank McCourt, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his unforgettable memoir about growing up poor, Irish and Catholic in Limrick, died of cancer on July 19 at age 78.

McCourt’s book – Angela’s Ashes – is one of only two books I have read (Mitch Albom’s Tuesday with Morrie is the other) where I found myself both laughing out loud and tearing up all in the space of a single page. Albom has written a moving tribute to McCourt where he remembers his friend as “wickedly intelligent.”

I can identify with that. I spent a truly unforgettable day with McCourt back in the fall of 2002 when the Idaho Humanities Council – a truly wonderful organization and reoccuring gift to Idaho – brought him to Boise for the Council’s annual Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities.

McCourt participated in a lunch for friends of the Council at the private The Arid Club in Boise. He was impressed with the fancy lunch and the good conversation, but really enjoyed more than anything, I believe, an hour long stop we made at Capitol High School to visit with teachers and students. Frank McCourt spent years teaching in the New York public schools before he became an overnight sensation with the publication of Angela’s Ashes. He took command of the classroom at the high school, his Irish humor (frequently more than a little randy) and charm in full flower. Most of all I remember his care with the kids and his interest in what they were reading and writing.

Asked once about the most difficult aspect of teaching, McCourt said:

“Energy and patience. The gap between the adult and the kid is so great. You have to go where they are and have compassion.”

Frank McCourt struck me as being like that one special teacher most of us were lucky enough to have in our lives. He is the teacher you never forget.

The haunting, yet funny lines from the opening page of Angela’s Ashes keep coming back:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

McCourt’s obit in the New York Times is worth a look. And, if you haven’t read Angela’s Ashes, hurry and find a copy.

Being an Irishman, Frank McCourt was known to enjoy a bit of the whiskey. As I recall, he favored Bushmill’s Black. Remembering the teacher and author seems reason enough to pour a little taste.

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