ABOUT MICHAEL VITEZ
My name is Michael Thomas Vitez. My middle name is for my father, Thomas Vitez, who died in 2004. These are some of the things you may want to know about me...
I am best known, perhaps, as the winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism for a series of stories I wrote, called Final Choices, for The Philadelphia Inquirer. I followed five people as they approached the ends of their lives, and I wrote powerful, intimate narratives about the decisions they made, the choices they faced. These were deeply moving personal stories, but also explained the dramatic changes underway in American society regarding how we die. I will always be most grateful to the people who let me into their lives, and trusted me, at the most tender and private moments of their lives. I am proudest that I didn’t betray that trust, and told stories that were true, powerful and helpful to so many readers. These stories are available at Pulitzer.org.
I have spent my life as a storyteller. I have discovered the power of stories to heal, to inspire, to connect and to change the world. My mission has been to celebrate life, to remind readers of the richness of life, to look for the good in people. I prefer to write about ordinary people, everyday people, who do extraordinary things. I carry around a quote in my wallet from William Faulkner’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1950. He was referring to the threat of nuclear annihilation when he said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” In my own small way, for decades as a journalist, I’ve tried hard to be one of those props, those pillars, to lift man’s heart.
There have been so many changes in my life of late.
I left the Inquirer after 30 years, the hardest decision of my life. It was such a privilege immersing myself in the lives of people I wrote about and telling their stories. I loved my newspaper life but it was time for a change.
I started a new job as Director of Narrative Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in April of 2016. Recently I celebrated my second anniversary. Hard to believe. Time has flown! This has been a great adventure, a new opportunity, and I'm so proud of the work we are doing. My mission is to focus on the human side of medicine, to bring a sense of wonder to life inside the hospital, to tell stories myself and also to share my passion for storytelling with the medical students, doctors nurses and even patients. Storytelling is an indispensable part of medicine, too often overlooked and we are trying to create a culture of stories at Temple, believing that stories have the power to heal, inspire and build community. Narrative Medicine is an emerging field, still being defined, and that's partly what is so exciting. A central premise is that doctors can’t provide the best care, and won’t feel the most fulfillment, unless they know their patients' stories. Medicine today, especially for students and residents in training, can be incredibly isolating and overwhelming, and burnout and depression are an enormous problem. Getting these students to pause and reflect, to focus on the humanities, is a way for them to give meaning to their experience and take care of themselves. As a cynical newspaper man I had to see the magic of these narrative medicine workshops to believe their value, but I am totally sold. I like to use an expression I'll borrow from the Philadelphia 76ers: Trust the Process! Students and doctors have written not only for their own joy and satisfaction, but for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, assorted medical journals and other publications. They see and feel incredible things at a hospital like Temple, where the mission is to serve the poorest, sickest and most challenging in society. You can read more about what we're doing and see many of our stories at this website: https://medium.com/temples-narrative-medicine-program.
I'm also teaching electives to help the students with their skills in writing, interviewing, listening, building trust and relationships with their patients, and we've introduced many other electives in the medical humanities -- from cooking class (thank you, Maureen!) to Improv Theater comes to Medical School to an art and observation class at The Philadelphia Museum of Art and many more. We also now hold twice a year Story Slams, five minutes to tell a story from the heart. Check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDfXPwTdHC. I work with many wonderful people at the hospital and medical school, including Dr. Douglas Reifler, associate dean of students and medical humanities, and Dr. Naomi Rosenberg, an ER doctor and now colleague in our narrative medicine program, who wrote this piece that will just blow you away if you haven't read it: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/opinion/sunday/how-to-tell-a-mother-her-child-is-dead.htm
Before going to Temple, I took a few months after leaving the Inquirer and published a new book, my third, Great Americans: Stories of Resilience and Joy in Everyday Life. This is a collection of 30 of my favorite and most inspiring stories from my days at The Inquirer. I’m grateful to the paper for permission to publish these stories. I’ve added postscripts to each one, updating the reader on the subject of the story, and also including a discussion of my favorite writing point in each story. I envision this book as a great teaching tool for anyone interested in feature writing or improving their own writing, and also just a wonderful read for everyone who loves a great story. I added five short narratives about my own journey and development as a writer. In many ways this book represents the very best of my life’s work. Working on it these last several months brought me immense joy. You can read more about this book here.
I’ve written two other books that I love. The more recent is THE ROAD BACK, A Journey of Grace and Grit. You can find out much more about it on this site, or on Amazon.com. This is the story of Matt Miller, 20, a University of Virginia student and member of the college triathlon club. He had just pedaled up a Mountain pass. He was on top of the world in so many ways, in love, with dreams of attending medical school, and so fit his resting pulse was 42! And then, cycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, he lost control of his bike, swerved across the double yellow line, and fell into the path of an oncoming Porsche. Matt lay in the road, his face crushed, his brain injured, and no longer breathing. The real story is not what happened, but what happened after. I share with readers the incredible, humbling, miraculous story of Matt’s survival and recovery. This is a story, truly, of grace and grit, of an America that shines — families, individuals, community and institutions. The story is as gripping as it is inspiring. I wrote about Matt for the Inquirer in 2009, a three part series, and got an overwhelming response. Then I watched him continue to recover in the most astonishing ways, and decided to take a leave and write the book, which will be out by May of 2012. Many have raved about The Road Back, including Erin Donohue, the U.S. Olympic 1500 meter runner who said “The Road Back is an incredible story of survival and recovery against all odds. Matt Miller’s focus and determination are unbelievable and inspiring — I’ll never again have an excuse not to get out and train.” And Dong H. Kim, the chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Medical School, who treated Gabby Giffords, said, “This is an absorbing, well-written and inspiring book about a special young man.” I’m not going to spoil the ending. You’re just going to have to read it!
Before The Road Back, a felicitous and celebrated accomplishment was my first book, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps, published in November of 2006 by Paul Dry Books of Philadelphia. I wrote the book and my colleague Tom Gralish, a photographer, friend and Pulitzer Prize winner himself, took most of the photographs. (Several, actually are mine, when Tom couldn’t make it!) We spent a year at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, interviewing and photographing people from all over the nation and the world who came to run those steps like Sylvester Stallone in the Academy Award winning film, Rocky. That movie is 40 years old in 2016 and yet every day the people still come! The book was a labor of love, a great adventure from start to finish. Sylvester Stallone wrote the foreword. You can read more about Rocky Stories at Paul Dry Books. The art museum steps remain my favorite place in Philadelphia. I have such treasured memories there, and a dream for me came true there, a vision and idea that culminated in a wonderful book. I still run those steps whenever I’m over there, and always celebrate my own journey!
As I mentioned earlier, I was a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 30 years, from 1985 to the fall of 2015. I specialized in telling wonderful stories about people. I have been all over America and several places in the world for the Inquirer.
I have had a wonderful career related to journalism. I spent a year, one of the best years of my life, at the University of Michigan as a Michigan Journalism Fellow. I taught writing for several semesters at The University of Pennsylvania, and for one semester as a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton. I have lectured and given talks about writing and storytelling at Poynter Institute workshops, in newsrooms and classrooms around the region, and to many community groups. And now so many of my talks are about narrative medicine, what we're doing and what it can be. In October of 2007, I was invited to Hong Kong to speak at the first annual Pulitzer Prize Winners Workshop hosted by Hong Kong Baptist University. My philosophy is simple: In a world overrun with facts, information, websites, cable channels, press releases and noise, I believe the best way to reach people is through stories. Stories unite us, nourish us, and are the best way to communicate.
I got my start in journalism as reporter and editor of the A-Blast at Annandale High School in Annandale, Virginia, and then as reporter and editor-in-chief at The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, where I graduated in 1979. Wahoo-wah. I was invited in June of 2011 to give the commencement address for Annandale High School at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. That was a great honor and thrill. A video of my talk is on YouTube. I had stashed an old letter jacket beneath the podium. And a few seconds after I began my talk, I pulled it out and put it on over my gown. What a great moment. The kids loved it. And so did I!
In the last decade, since Rocky Stories was published, I have been asked to give multi-media presentations at many conventions in Philadelphia and beyond. I am always up for giving a Rocky talk., and will be giving one April 29, 2018, at a celebration of the impact of Rocky on Philadelphia at the DaVinci Art Alliance in South Philly. www.davinciartalliance.org. The talks do two things primarily: 1) Inspire the audience with amazing stories of the people who run the steps and with our own odyssey to publish the book, 2) illustrate the power of storytelling, provide a great sense of Philadelphia and Rocky, and encourage listeners to run the steps to celebrate their own achievements in life.
I was born April, 11, 1957. Since 1984, I have been married to Maureen Fitzgerald, a wonderful and beautiful woman who is incredibly patient to put up with me! She is the pride of Pennsbury High School, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and also The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she was food editor until the end of 2017. She is the founder of My Daughter’s Kitchen, a terrific program she started with our daughter as a healthy cooking blog, and is now a cooking program in 35 schools in Philadelphia and Camden, teaching 5th graders over 8 weeks to cook healthy, affordable and healthy meals. Maureen and the children prepare the meals, and then she writes a weekly column about it for the paper. The program has grown as more than 80 readers have volunteer in to cook with students in other schools, and Maureen is now working on a cookbook. She partners with chef Marc Vetri and his foundation. You can read all about her program.
We have three terrific children: Tim, married to Alyssa, and they now have a beautiful son, Tommy, who will turn 1 in the summer of 2018 and is named after my father. Tim sells exchange traded funds for Vanguard, the mutual fund giant. Sally is finishing the second year of her residency in OB-GYN at Columbia in New York and will marry Ryan Ptashkin in May of 2018. Welcome to the family Ryan! We are so lucky to have both you and Alyssa as members of the family. And Jonathan, 24, universally known as Boo growing up, is our baby. He ran track and cross country at Princeton, and now works at Citi in New York. Yeah, Boo! We also had a dog, Rocky, named in honor of my book, a long-haired dachshund, who died in December of 2017 at age 13.. His great decisions daily were whether to nap on the chair, or the couch, or the rug…
I have lived for 32 years now in Haddonfield, New Jersey, where I have a wonderful life. I have a tennis group, a poker group, and many, many friends. I coached soccer and baseball for many years, and my philosophy was always to emphasize the joy and eliminate the pressure. We had so much fun. In one championship game, a young boy, 11, Ryan Webb, went to bat with the bases loaded, two outs and the game on the line. He was understandably nervous. Earlier that day, his dog, Cyrus, had been neutered. I pulled Ryan aside in the on-deck circle. No matter what happened, I told him, even if he struck out looking, he’d still have a better day than his dog. He grinned broadly and doubled home the winning runs. This is now known as the Cyrus Rule.
I grew up in North Springfield, Virginia. I loved growing up in Northern Virginia, and moving away, to pursue my newspaper career, devastated me more than I realized. My mother lived in the same house where I grew up for 55 years, until a tree fell on it in a hurricane. She’s now 92 and still independent, living in a retirement community in Northern Virginia. She still goes to concerts and discussion group and loves online bridge. My parents, Thomas and Marianne Vitez, were immigrants. Dad fled from Budapest, Hungary in 1939 to escape Hitler. A German Jew, my mother had an even more harrowing escape from Hitler and Europe, arriving at Ellis Island in New York in 1941. The Jewish charities helped my mother and her parents get on their feet. My mother and father met in New York City, in Washington Heights, and my dad’s job with the Internal Revenue Service brought them to the Washington area. They have both written their life stories. My father died from leukemia in 2004. I share their story in my book, Great Americans, because I feel their life story had a profound effect on why I’m a storyteller. I feel like I grew up inside their amazing story, and developed a reverence for life stories, and came to believe that everyone has an amazing story to tell.
I have two wonderful brothers, Danny and Larry. Danny and his family live in Virginia Beach. Dan is an accountant. He is married to Gail, and his sons, Kevin and Doug, both attended the University of Virginia and are both married now to wonderful women. Larry and his family live in Charlotte, NC. He is an investment advisor. He started up North Carolina Community Sailing, on Lake Norman, to enable people of all walks of life and abilities learn to discover and love sailing as he has. It is thriving and growing, an incredible accomplishment. He is married to Carla and they have two wonderful daughters, Natalie and Celeste. I am lucky, lucky, lucky to have two such great brothers.
I love to run, swim, bike ride, play tennis and poker and I’m not very good at any of them. My favorite writer is Joseph Mitchell, who spent his career writing for The New Yorker, though I also love the stories of Ernie Pyle, war correspondent during WWII. My favorite novel is Lonesome Dove. My favorite movie is Good Will Hunting. My favorite thing to eat is chocolate ice cream. Growing up, I loved the Dallas Cowboys (Calvin Hill, Bob Lilly, Bob Hayes, etc), the New York Knicks (Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave Debusschere, etc) and the Boston Bruins (Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, etc) though I am now a devoted Philadelphia sports fan. My favorite athlete of all time is Willie Mays. I once interviewed Willie Mays in Hartford, Connecticut, when I worked at the Hartford Courant and he came to town to promote a new autobiography. Willie Mays taught me a valuable lesson. I was young and a know-it-all, and I wanted to interview him about his book. He asked me if I’d read it. I had not. He handed me a copy, and told me to come back in two hours. He taught me respect. The book wasn’t very good, but I still love Willie Mays because he was so versatile, he could do it all — without steroids!