A Celebration of Frank McCourt

On Friday, July 24, 2009, I attended “A Celebration of Frank McCourt,” a tribute held at the Avram Theater on the campus of Stony Brook Southampton, during the Southampton Writers Conference. I had attended the Conference the past three summers, and was lucky enough to have been in Frank’s Memoir Writing Workshop in 2007 (a future post will be forthcoming on that experience).


The latest edition of The Southampton Review (pictured here, the literary magazine published by Stony Brook Southampton MFA program in Literature and Creative Writing) honors Frank McCourt, who passed away on Sunday, July 19, 2009. Contributors to this special edition include: Alan Alda, Malachy McCourt, Alphie McCourt, Colum McCann, W.S. Merwin, and Roger Rosenblatt, and many others. This keepsake issue also contains several pieces written by Frank. Individual photos of Frank and each member of his 2007 Memoir Writing Workshop also grace the pages, of which I am one of the fortunate fourteen.


The evening featured remarks by friends, colleagues, students, and Frank’s youngest brother, Alphie McCourt.


Roger Rosenblatt said Frank was “the centerpiece of our writing program.” Bob Reeves said it is “impossible to overstate Frank’s importance to the MFA program,” and regarding Frank’s passing, “our hearts are broken.”

Alan Alda spoke about his experience of taking Frank’s workshop in 2005, along with actress Anne Bancroft; that Frank’s advice included trying to “find the hotspots” in one’s life to write a memoir. Alan said, “Frank was one of the hotspots of my life.” In conclusion, Alan said, “Wasn’t it glorious that we had him? ‘Twas.”


Laura Sillerman (who, along with her husband, Robert, generously host several authors during the conference each summer at their beachfront home) read a poem by Hafiz:

The small man

Builds cages for everyone

He

Knows.

While the Sage,

Who has to duck his head

When the moon is low,

Keeps dropping keys all night long

For the

Beautiful

Rowdy

Prisoners.

Laura said, “Frank was the dropper of keys for anyone who wanted to write; how lucky we were to be the rowdy prisoners of his charms.”


Matt Klam shared a story Frank once told about delivering a telegram to a nun when he worked for the Post Office at age fourteen. When she opened the door, he noticed lace knitting. He thought he would compliment her, so he asked if she knitted the lace herself. “Yes,” the nun replied, “with these hands that never touched the flesh of man.”

Poet Billy Collins said that one summer evening at the Sillermans, Frank was getting poetic about the sunset. Billy told Frank, “That’s my territory! I’m the poet here; forests, clouds, mountains, streams…you stick to your misery.”


Billy read two of his poems: “The Dead,” and one of Frank’s favorites, “Afternoon with Irish Cows.”


Lou Ann Walker, the Editor-in-Chief of The Southampton Review, spoke of how colleagues, students, family and friends of Frank’s prepared pieces in a short time frame to create this special issue to honor Frank. “Anything for Frank,” they responded.

Alphie McCourt (pictured on stage) shared heartfelt personal stories about his oldest brother, and remarked, “So many heroes in movies and TV are named Frank,” and that “Frank was our hero.”


Meg Wolitzer, Ursula Hegi, Kaylie Jones, and Melissa Bank read excerpts from Angela’s Ashes. Susan Jane Gilman, Sande Berger, and Kathy Lynch read their contributions in The Southampton Review. Susan was a student of Frank’s at Stuyvesant High School who inspired her to become an author.


Regarding Frank’s storytelling, Colum McCann said, “Step into his stories and you don’t want to step out.”


Throughout the evening, we were treated to photographs, videos, and music celebrating Frank’s life. One of my favorite clips was of Frank reading an excerpt from Angela’s Ashes (when at age fourteen, he got caught wearing his dead grandmother’s dress as he waited for his clothes to dry). Throughout the reading, Frank kept breaking up, laughing. I witnessed those precious moments when they occurred last summer; we howled right along with him.


Frank’s beloved wife, Ellen, attended this special event, and I had the opportunity to express my condolences. We had met several times during the past two conferences. A heartwarming piece by Jim Dwyer appeared in the New York Times on July 26, 2009, featuring how Ellen met Frank and her role in persuading Frank to write Angela’s Ashes. My heart goes out to Ellen, the entire McCourt clan, his “family” at Stony Brook Southampton, his friends, students, and the millions of fans around the world who adored him.

If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the Frank McCourt tribute issue of The Southampton Review, you can order one here.


13 thoughts on “A Celebration of Frank McCourt

  1. Hi Kathy,

    Thank you for a wonderful view of the celebration of the life of Frank McCourt. May the Lord hold him in the hollow of His hands.

    Mary McAleese the current president of Ireland, like her predecessor Mary Robinson, has a grand appreciation for the Irish people who left their home land and like Robinson keeps a candle in the window of the Presidential residence in Phoenix Park to light the emigres way home again.

    I think her words re: the effect of the land they left on the land they settled in is worth repeating here as the quote certainly suits the life of Frank McCourt.

    "The immigrant's heart marches to the beat of two quite different drums, one from the old homeland and the other from the new. The immigrant has to bridge these two worlds, living comfortably in the new and bringing the best of his or her ancient identity and heritage to bear on life in an adopted homeland."

    Mary McAleese, President, Ireland

    Terrie

  2. Terrie – Thanks for your sentiments, and for so kindly sharing the words of Mary McAleese.

    Laura – It was a moving experience, one that will stay with me forever.

    Thanks, Elaine. It warmed my heart to be around so many Frank McCourt admirers. Each year, the Writers Conference is held about the same time; it's nice to know that his Stony Brook/Southampton family will be together each year on the anniversary of his passing.

  3. Kathy, thanks for this sensitive, funny, vivid recap of Frank's memorial celebration. As I read it, I thought about what an gifted and natural writer you are. No wonder Frank was so proud of you and supportive of your work. ~Nicole

  4. Nicole – Thank you for your supportive comments. I was privileged to have been in Frank's workshop.
    One of the highlights of the 2007 conference was meeting you! I'm so proud of all of your accomplishments and excited for the ones to come. Keep up the good work!

  5. Kathy, your report on the public tribute held for Frank McCourt…reads as your own clearly heartfelt tribute. You were so lucky (also clearly worthy) of the opportunity to work with him. I love love love the poem by Hafiz. Thanks for this………Lois

  6. Kathy, what a lovely tribute you have posted here to Mr. McCourt. I never knew him, except through his books – a great writer. No doubt he will be missed.
    Peace, Judi

  7. Lois – Thank you for your kind words. I would like to prepare a post on that unique experience of being in his workshop. Isn't that a great Hafiz poem?

    Judi – Thanks for stopping by. His stories will live on forever; they are so precious. It is amazing how he survived his childhood and soared to such heights. I enjoy listening to his audiobooks – always a treat.

  8. Terrific tribute, Kathy, and so personal. I loved that wonderful poem, too. What a credit to him are the people who care for him, and they rose to the high challenge of trying to memorialize a man who was himself a supreme connoisseur of memories.

    As such a devoted teacher, I know he'll be proud and delighted somewhere in some ineffable, purely McCourtly way when your own memoir gets into print.

  9. Clare – Thank you for such a poignant comment, and your confidence in me. I hope I can make him proud one day!

  10. Kathy,

    Henry Adams once said, "A teacher affects eternity." The reach of that touch, by one who was both a teacher and an author, is immeasurable. You have experienced the challenges of Frank's young years through his writing and also experienced the joy of his later years by sharing in his laughter. Now, continue his legacy by following his counsel and advice…it will extend his reach even more.

    Bill

  11. Bill – Thank you for that wonderful Henry Adams quote. I will always treasure Frank's friendship and the wisdom he shared. Frank cared a great deal about his students, and shared in their successes.

    Thanks for being one of the best "teachers" I had in the police department; I learned so much from you and I carried it with me throughout my career.

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