Frank mccourt

Remembering my hero, five years on

By Edward McCann

Frank McCourt peering out from the front door of Leamy's School on a visit to Limerick City in the summer of 1997. PHOTOCALL

My hero Frank McCourt died five years ago this week, an event that prompted sorrow mixed with the guilty suspicion that I wasn’t really entitled to any. We were strangers, after all, but McCourt was important to me in the unknowing way heroes often are. I once made a sort of pilgrimage to tell him that.

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On a spring day in 2007 I took the train from Poughkeepsie to New York City to see McCourt and Calvin Trillin at the 92nd Street Y. The event was part of a reading and performance series but was more like eavesdropping on the men as they chatted in the living room, all of us in the audience like flies on the wall.

The men sat in club chairs flanking a low table and talked about favorite books, about pretentious restaurants (“Le Maison de Casa House”), and about the ham-fisted response to the massive snowstorms that crippled New York City in the 1970s.

“There are still huge piles of snow out in Queens left over from the Lindsey administration,” said McCourt.

From my seat in the darkened auditorium I laughed along with the men, enjoying their sharp wit and the easy warmth of their exchange.

Following a brief Q&A, the men took seats at folding tables in a reception area where guests with books formed two lines before them. Empty handed, I stood in McCourt’s line and watched him smile and chat with his fans, graciously signing his name again and again. I extended my hand as I approached the table.

“Hello, Mr. McCourt; I left your books at home this morning; it seemed a little tacky to haul them all down here for your autograph.”

McCourt smiled and waved his hand in dismissal. “Och, that’s what these things are for.”

“Well, I enjoyed hearing you and Mr. Trillin speak,” I said, “but I really came here today to tell you that something you said in a radio interview years ago really resonated with me and it inspired me to write my own story about my Irish Catholic childhood in Broad Channel, and about my search for the 3-year-old who went missing from our family.”

McCourt folded his hands and tilted his head to one side, waiting.

“The interviewer asked you why, at age 66 and after 30 years in the classroom, you’d decided to write ‘Angela’s Ashes.’ You said, ‘Because if I hadn’t, I’d have gone howling to my grave.”

McCourt’s facial expression said he didn’t recall the words exactly but he certainly agreed with the sentiment.

“That’s pretty good,” he said with a chuckle.

People behind me were waiting. Afraid to fawn or embarrass myself, I didn’t mention the mutual acquaintance I shared with his editor and I refrained from telling him, like others on line before me, how very much I admired his work. But I did manage to say: “When I finish my manuscript I’d like to send it to you with a note reminding you about this conversation. Perhaps you’d let me take you to lunch?”

He squinted at my card before slipping it into his shirt pocket. “Okay,” he said, clutching my hand a second time. “Maybe we can do some howling!”

Walking toward the train I thought about how goofy it was to invite Frank McCourt to lunch. But I was emboldened because I was enamored, and because McCourt was the favorite teacher I never had. Until the morning I learned of his illness, when his brother Malachy told the press “Frank is not expected to live,” the slim possibility of that lunch had still remained: a spring meeting at an outdoor café in the city or perhaps a shared hour or two in the autumn, sharing a pot of tea in Connecticut as warm sunlight filtered through golden leaves overhead.

The night McCourt lay dying a torrential summer storm blew through the Hudson Valley. I imagined him in his bed an hour to the south, tended by family and a hospice nurse while thunder cracked and the lights flickered.

I feel certain he did not howl.

Edward McCann is a professional writer whose features and essays have been published in national magazines and literary journals An award-winning television writer/producer and longtime contributing editor at Country Living, he also writes a blog, “My Rescue Mutt,” which chronicles his adventures with Willie, an 11-pounder from central Louisiana. McCann recently completed a memoir entitled “Finding George.” He lives and writes in New York's Hudson River Valley.