Today: Frank McCourt, a retired New York school teacher who at age 66 launched a remarkable writing career.
If you are afraid time has passed you by and you will never attain your dreams you will especially enjoy today’s story.
Frank became an author and published his first book in 1996 at 66 years of age.
That book, “Angela’s Ashes,” a story of heartbreak and yet hope from his childhood in grinding poverty in Ireland became hugely popular, selling 4 million hard cover copies.
On the New York Times best seller list for over 2 years, in 1997 the book won a Pulitzer Prize and it was later made into a movie.
All in response to the story Frank told of his early life. Born in extreme poverty in Brooklyn, NY in 1930, he was the eldest of 7 children. His father was a day laborer and an alcoholic who often drank his paycheck away rather than support his family.
When Frank was just 4 years old, his infant sister Margaret died of unknown causes a few weeks after her birth in 1935. In response to her death, his father took the family back to Ireland hoping for a better future.
But that better future didn’t come as he didn’t change himself and continued to waste most of his money on alcohol. As a result the family lived in a tiny, ice cold and drippy wet, rat infested home with no bathroom.
The home was next to the public toilets used by the entire neighborhood and the stench from this filthy toilet facility was horrific and permeated every nook and cranny where they lived.
A year after their return to Ireland, 2 of Frank’s brothers died of pneumonia, from malnutrition and the frequent icy rain.
As a child, Frank used to dream about being in prison for behind bars; he would have 3 meals a day and a dry, warm place to live.
Then fate struck. At 10, Frank nearly died from typhus and was rushed to the hospital where he successfully fought for his life. Hospitalized for 3 months, he was warm and well fed and as he lay in bed, he had books to read from the hospital library.
It was then that reading captured his imagination.
When Frank was 11 years old during World War ll, his father left his family for a job in an English munitions factory. But even with steady work and a reliable paycheck, seldom did he send money home, as usual drinking it away.
Frank’s mother Angela, for whom his famous book is named desperately pleaded with St. Vincent de Paul and other charities for help. And she begged for money on the streets.
As the eldest child Frank had to quit school at 13 to support his mother and his 3 brothers, taking every menial job he could get. In desperation, he sometimes stole bread and milk.
In 1949, when Frank was just 19, he took what little savings he had, boarded a ship and returned to New York, as life remained a desperate struggle for him. A Priest he met on board helped him get a job at New York’s Biltmore Hotel, earning $26 a week and helped him get a room to live in.
From those meager wages, Frank sent $10 a week home to his mother.
The U.S. Army drafted him during the Korean War (1950 – 53) and afterward he applied for and received G.I. Bill funding to attend college.
But there was a big problem. Frank dropped out of school at 13 and was far from having a high school diploma. He overcame it by persuading New York University to accept him on probation.
The college education Frank received made a huge difference in his life. After graduating in 1957, he began a nearly 30 year teaching career in New York schools. Now he had a reliable paycheck and benefits and a meaningful career.
In 1967, Frank added a Master’s Degree from Brooklyn College.
But Frank never got over the extreme poverty of his youth. Shortly after he started teaching, a kid threw a sandwich at another kid. But instead of cracking down, to everyone’s amazement, Frank walked over and calmly picked up the sandwich, inspected it and ate it.
When you have been extremely poor and hungry, you do not waste food.
How did Frank develop his story telling capability? In 2000, he told the Toronto Sun that because when he was growing up in Ireland, his family had no television (not yet in common use) or radio, at night they’d tell stories to entertain each other.
“But I also had to be a great story-teller to survive teaching. I spent 30 years in the classroom. When you stand before 170 teenagers each day, you have to get and keep their attention. Their attention span is about seven minutes, which is the time between commercials. So you have to stay on your toes.”
After the enormous success of “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank continued to write. In 1999, he published a sequel to “Angela’s Ashes,” “Tis: A Memoir,” about his life in America; and in 2005, “Teacher Man,” a memoir about his life as a teacher. His books have now sold over 10 million copies.
But on July 19th, 2009 at the age of 78, Frank died of cancer. However his books continue to sell well, especially “Angela’s Ashes,” touching readers all over the world.
Among his survivors are his third wife Ellen and his daughter Margaret (Maggie) by his first wife Alberta, and their four grandchildren. And he is survived by a legion of readers.
When Frank spoke to audiences he would tell them their lives are important and meaningful and that each of them has a story to tell. He would encourage them to write, to share their stories.
If he could speak to you, he would likely encourage you to tell your story. Look into your heart and see what special gift you find within. Then give writing it a try and a whole new life could begin for you as it did for Frank.
Success Tip of the Week:
If you decide to write but have no writing skills, take writing classes or read the works of great writers to learn from them. Then share with the world on the Internet, the story you have that is aching to be expressed. You may touch a lot of readers.
In the next KazanToday:
A simple business idea that made a man a billionaire in his 60s.