Frank McCourt "told his writing students that they were their own best material," said William Grimes in The New York Times, and he proved it. McCourt, who died Sunday at 78, won a Pulitzer Prize for his "phenomenally popular" memoir, Angela's Ashes, after he retired as a New York City school teacher. His book about his "miserable childhood" in Limerick, Ireland—his family living in abject poverty, his father an alcoholic—demonstrated "incongruously lilting, buoyant prose, and its heartfelt urgency struck a remarkable chord with readers and critics."

McCourt was also a skilled and well-liked teacher for nearly 30 years, Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times. He would "regale his students with his horrifying and often hilarious tales of his childhood in Ireland." But he was also a late-bloomer: It wasn't until he was in his mid-60s and retired from the school system that he wrote Angela's Ashes, followed by 'Tis, Teacher Man, and Angela and the Baby Jesus.

"Fame and fortune transformed McCourt's last years," said Lev Grossman in Time, but they didn't change him. Aside from his residence in Manhattan, "he bought a second home in Connecticut, next door to Arthur Miller." There is now an Angela's Ashes walking tour in Limerick. "I wrote a book about growing up miserable, and the next thing I know I'm here," McCourt once said. "It's absurd, isn't it? It's extraordinary."