Writing anything is hard, but few genres get fumbled quite like memoir.
To do it right, the writer has to have a triple threat of a compelling story, a not always flattering level of introspection and the writing ability to pull it off. So often the people with enough self-importance to write one don’t have much of substance to say or the self-reflection to make it worth reading. After all, nobody wants to read a book about someone who thinks they did everything right.
In less capable hands, “More to Life Than More” could have fallen into some of those pitfalls. But, instead, Alan Pesky’s memoir about the death of his middle son, Lee, suddenly to cancer and the founding of Boise’s Lee Pesky Learning Center soars with emotion, hard lessons and zippy writing. It’s a compelling story of learning from our most difficult loved ones and healing from loss with a dedication to public service that anyone would enjoy, especially if you have an interest in education.
Lee was not what Pesky expected. The high-powered advertising executive had high hopes for his three children to succeed in athletics and in the classroom, eventually rising to greatness. This was no problem for his oldest and his youngest, but Lee struggled. School didn’t come easily to him, and he never grew to love sports as a kid the way his father longed for.
Eventually, Lee was diagnosed with a learning disability that hampered his coordination and his academics. This helped explain some of his difficulties, but it didn’t necessarily make Pesky’s relationship with his son any easier over the years. They had their tussles, but eventually, they reached a peaceful understanding and Lee thrived as a small business owner in Ketchum. All just in time for him to die of a large, rapidly spreading brain tumor.
What follows is the story of how Pesky and his wife Wendy navigated his death and their grief and turned it into the Lee Pesky Learning Center to support children with learning disabilities in Boise and across Idaho to help people like his son. Along the way, Pesky (with the help of his co-author Claudia Aulum) spins a great yarn about his childhood in Queens, raising his family, launching a successful advertising firm at the height of the “Mad Men” era in New York City and the challenging early days of the nonprofit. With the inclusion of great color, Pesky and Aulum turn what could have been a melodramatic sap fest into a breezy, tear-jerking read.
Launching the Lee Pesky Learning Center is a great achievement that has touched many lives, but what was most striking about this book is Pesky’s willingness to admit fault and look back on the past with a critical eye. He openly talks about how he pushed Lee to fit into a box he wasn’t built for, and the damage it did to their relationship. Pesky looks deep into his parenting and the love he had for his son, calling him his “greatest teacher.” There are few parents who examine their mistakes to this degree, let alone write about it honestly.
When launching the center, Pesky dove in to learn as much about learning disabilities and education as he could. He didn’t just write the check, he lived and breathed the project for years. This shines through in the book’s second half, where he talks about the center’s philosophy on learning, the early days of the launch and the importance in education for every child. Pesky also has a unique sensitivity to the challenges families of children with learning difficulties face having lived it himself, and I especially enjoyed the discussions of how families can work with their children to help them flourish instead of punishing them for being “different.”
There are sections in the education-heavy second half that can make your eyes glaze over if you’re not all in on the science of education, but every time it gets too overwhelming Pesky and Aulum rescue it and the book starts flowing once again. It’s a tricky balance, but they walked it well enough that any education professional would enjoy this but it remains readable to someone outside the field.
When Pesky lost his son, he turned around and gave back an immeasurable amount to Idaho’s children. The story of how it all happened is well worth your time.