Author Frank McCourt's dead at 78 Roxbury resident penned Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Angela's Ashes'
Roxbury resident penned Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Angela's Ashes'
Published 11:03 pm, Monday, August 31, 2009
Frank McCourt, the former New York City public school teacher from Ireland who gained fame for the autobiographical "Angela's Ashes," died Sunday, July 19, of cancer at a Manhattan hospice. He was 78.
Mr. McCourt was a part-time Roxbury resident. He had moved to the town a few years after his 1997 Pulitzer Prize win for "Angela's Ashes," the epic tale of woe about his impoverished Irish childhood.
He and his wife, Ellen, bought a converted 1850s barn overlooking a pond on Tophet Road. At that time, the McCourts were neighbors in the town to two other Pulitzer-winning writers: Arthur Miller and William Styron.
Playwright and actor Joseph Godfrey, also a Roxbury neighbor, remembers Mr. McCourt as being "absolutely unpretentious, generous and funny."
"(Irish author) James Joyce once said, the great gift of the Irish was the gift of hospitality and that was Frank McCourt," Mr. Godfrey said. "I had seen him just a month ago at a dinner at his house. I was always impressed with his generosity."
"He had said once that he was a role model for senior citizens.' It's a great quote and he truly was," Mr. Godfrey said. "He was thrilled to have this great time in his life at an age that for most people is low key."
In a interview with The News-Times last October, Mr. McCourt described how a sense of humor helped him survive amid the poverty and misery of the slums of Limerick, where his family lived after returning to Ireland from New York City in 1934.
"If you don't have a sense of humor, you're a dead duck in a situation like that," he said. "If you didn't have food, you had to laugh."
Three of his six siblings died, and Mr. McCourt nearly succumbed to typhoid fever, but he returned to the United States at the age of 19, and eventually became a teacher.
It wasn't until after he retired that "Angela's Ashes" was published, and he followed it up with "Tis," a chronicle of his life upon returning to America, and "Teacher Man," a memoir of his days in the classroom.
"I'd hesitated to meet Frank. He was this great star," said George Feifer, a Roxbury neighbor and English instructor who lives within a minute's walk from the McCourt house. "But at no point was he pretentious or off-putting. He was one of the rare American writers whose commercial success was justified by artistic talent."
Mr. Feifer noted a wooden sign that was nailed on the garage at the McCourts. It said "No Irish Need Apply."
"It wasn't entirely a joke," Mr. Feifer said. "It harkened back to a time of prejudice that, thank goodness, has passed. Frank was keenly aware of that time."
Mr. McCourt split his time between New York City and Litchfield County but, ask him to appear at an event, ranging from a library discussion group to a fundraiser for young people, and the response was usually the same. He was a regular speaker at the Region 12 after-school arts project, encouraging young writers in the Shepaug Valley school district.
"His cordiality was such that he wouldn't charge us," said Lois Wolsch, who helps run the monthly Book Talk program at the Southbury Library, where Mr. McCourt was twice a guest in recent years. "He said, I'm a neighbor.'"
"If you closed your eyes, you thought you were sitting in a pub in Dublin," she recalled. "Everyone was mesmerized. He sold a lot of books and he autographed every one."
For Woodbury resident Sandra Fuchs, seeing Mr. and Mrs. McCourt when they were shopping at the local market was a delight.
"I would frequently see him in the local market and I used to think, poor man, wandering the aisles near his wife's shopping cart, bored to tears, as are many men," Mrs. Fuchs said. "One day, as I passed him, I told him I was a fellow United Federation of Teachers member from New York.' He said, Really, what school?' "
Mrs. Fuchs proceeded to name the New York City school she had taught in -- one known for its "challenging environment."
"You're a hero,' Mr. McCourt shouted in his brogue as I passed," Mrs. Fuchs recalled. "I answered, Yes, I am and I have the scars to prove it.' He laughed uproariously."