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Big Russ & Me
Father & Son: Lessons of Life
By Tim Russert
Introduction by Luke Russert
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- ebook $9.99 $12.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback $24.99 $31.99 CAD
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In this warm, engaging memoir, a #1 New York Times bestseller upon its initial release in 2004, Russert casts a fond look back to the 1950s Buffalo neighborhood of his youth. In the close-knit Irish-Catholic community where grew up, doors were left unlocked at night; backyard ponds became makeshift ice hockey rinks in winter; and streets were commandeered as touch football fields in the fall. And he recalls the extraordinary example of his father, a WWII veteran who worked two jobs without complaint for thirty years and taught his children to appreciate the values of self-discipline, of respect, of loyalty to friends.
These deep roots stayed with Russert as he forged a remarkable career, first in government and then in media, and finally in his 16 years at Meet the Press as one of the most recognized and trusted face in television news. As Russert explains, his fundamental values sprung from that small house on Woodside Avenue and the special bond he shared with his fathervalues he passed down to his own son, Luke. As Tim Russert celebrates the indelible connection between fathers and sons, readers everywhere will laugh and cry in identification with the life lessons of Big Russ and in mourning of Tim Russert, a big American voice in his own right.
For this special 10th anniversary trade paperback edition of Big Russ & Me, Tim's son Luke will contribute an extensive introduction, commenting on his father's legacy, and on how these lessons passed down from his grandfather impact the third generation. Luke had just graduated from college in 2008 when his father passed away. Since then, he has followed in his father's footsteps, working as a special correspondent and congressional reporter for NBC news and contributing frequently to various NBC and MSNBC outlets. Despite his youth, Luke has already shown that the ideals promoted by Big Russ in midcentury Buffalo still apply in 21st century New York, and that these lessons are as relevant for us as ever.
by Luke Orth Russert
SIX YEARS LATER, it happens more often than you’d think. I’ll be walking down the street, or sitting in a restaurant, or grabbing a coffee at an airport and somebody will approach me, usually with a frozen smile, their eyes a little moist. With a nervous hesitancy in their voice they’ll ask, “You’re Tim Russert’s son, right?” Almost immediately after I say yes they say, “Gosh, I really loved your dad, he was the best.” Usually that’s followed by a back slap, a “Go Bills!” or a hug. I can honestly say it never really gets old. I know why I loved my dad; he was my best friend. But now, years after his death, I often wonder why the man who threw around the baseball with me, watched games, made me laugh, and forced me to memorize vocabulary flash cards still resonates so vividly with so many.
Perhaps the answer lies in something that a gentleman in Alliance, Ohio, told me a few years ago. I was on assignment for NBC News, trying to take the pulse of a swing state congressional district. While I introduced myself to voters in the parking lot of a diner, hoping to secure a valuable “man on the street” bite for a TV spot, a man caught my last name. He asked me if I was related to Tim Russert. I said that I was indeed and, in fact, his son. He extended his well-worked hand, gripped mine, looked me straight in the eye and said, “We loved him. He was for us—he cared.”
Those last words have stuck with me because they’re so simple, yet carry so much weight: he cared. The man was right, my father did care—about his family, his faith, his friends, and perhaps most of all, his country. He viewed his job as an opportunity to serve, to instruct and hold those with so much power to the highest standards. He did not do this for money, personal fame, or professional accolades; he did it because, through faith, he carried the conviction that he must ask the important questions on behalf of the American people. That his voice must rise above the petty politics that so often kill reason in Washington, and provide an outlet for the truth. This unwavering belief in his duty coupled with his broad-shouldered, husky frame and jolly Irish demeanor made my father special. He was the guy with the serious job whom you not only wanted to have a beer with but also share a laugh and a cry.
Perhaps his best quality was that he always “got” people. Whatever their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality my dad could relate to anyone. Six years later it’s still hard to accept that he’s gone, but as he wrote in this book, “To accept faith we have to resign ourselves as mortals to the fact that we are a small part of a grand design.” I’d argue that he was a large part of the contemporary American grand design, but he’d humbly tell me I was overstating it and that his own father, “Big Russ,” didn’t teach me to brag.
As much as this book is about my dad, it also tells the story of the man known affectionately as Big Russ. I never called him that; to me he was always “Grandpa.” He didn’t speak much, but he didn’t have to with me. His genuine kindness and playful manner always made more than enough of an impact. I still hear his Santa Claus–style “he-he-he” laugh when I drive by a Ted’s Hot Dogs in Buffalo. He’d say to me, “Lukie, you eat it with extra Weber’s mustard.”
He was a dutiful man, and if he taught me anything, it was about the importance of doing the job you were tasked to do. One family vacation Fourth of July when I was around sixteen, I couldn’t make the family barbecue because I had a double shift at the local public golf course cleaning out carts and picking the driving range. I might have expected Grandpa to be disappointed that I wasn’t there, but when I got home later in the day, he couldn’t have been prouder. He told me that working when nobody else wants to “shows ’em you’re reliable.” When I told him I had to take out many loads of garbage, he flashed a huge grin. “Sanitation work. We do that—it’s a badge of honor!” Now when I get some crazy assignments like covering Congress on New Year’s Eve well into the early morning, I think about Grandpa’s words and know that, if nothing else, at least I’m reliable at that moment in time.
Grandpa outlived Dad and passed away at the age of eighty-five. Even as his mind started to slip away, he tried to laugh when he could. When I went to his viewing, I was sad, but I couldn’t help but crack a smile. The viewing happened to fall on a Sunday during a Bills home game. Many of his best friends and family paid their respects and then went to watch the game in a room in the back of the funeral home. Now, many might find this offensive, but it’s exactly what Big Russ would have wanted. He loved his Bills; he loved watching them with my dad and my late uncle Bill. You could say he literally lived and died with them. Of course, the Bills lost the game that day.
I’M FOREVER THANKFUL that my father wrote Big Russ and Me. Not just because it’s a wonderful book, but for the more selfish reason that it has given me my father’s playbook as I have embarked on my own life. I find myself leafing through it hoping to hear his soothing voice jump off the page and push me in the right direction. Whenever I’m lost, I look over some of the appropriately named chapters for guidance: Respect, Work, Faith, Discipline, Loss, Washington, Politics, Baseball, Food, and Fatherhood—though I’m years away from that last one!
When my father finished Big Russ and Me he confided to me that he was nervous about how it would be received. He wondered if folks outside of the Rust Belt could relate to his steel-city parochial Catholic upbringing back when the American promise was fresh and had been boosted by the Allied victory in World War II. He wondered if the lessons he had learned in the 1960s were similar to others who were not quite progressive radicals but also not conservative hardhats. He also admitted that he didn’t know if the book-buying public would care about a newsman’s upbringing and his take on fatherhood: for years they had turned to him for the news, not a how-to manual.
Well, his doubts were answered when this book became a number-one New York Times bestseller. He was proud of that, so much so that he clipped the list out of the newspaper, framed it and put it on his office wall at home. He jokingly referred to it as his “long-desired Super Bowl ring” and was straight-up giddy when Wisdom of Our Fathers accomplished the same feat. For a kid from South Buffalo to have a bestselling book—as my Big Russ would say, “What a country!” Through writing he revealed his feelings about the lessons he’d learned from his past and what he thought was his most important job title: dad.
Fatherhood was my dad’s passion. A day never went by that I didn’t know my father loved me. In fact, the first time I did not speak to my father for more than twenty-four hours was when I went on my first sleepover camping trip in the eighth grade. The Russerts of South Buffalo were many things, but they were not campers. As my dad’s friend Mike Barnicle said, “Tim was from a cement sidewalk . . . he rarely saw a river without a paper mill or steel plant next to it.”
Dad took me to an army surplus store to get properly outfitted, and you would have thought I was spending a year in the wilderness with Davy Crockett given the amount of gear he “insisted” I needed. When I arrived at the camp site, the guide told me to “drop about thirty pounds” of gear, so gone were the three backup flashlights, the folding cot, and the totally necessary triple-lined camouflage winter parka. (Mind you, the trip was in the humid spring.)
I got along fine camping, but after five days I knew it wasn’t necessarily for me. Unlike Dad, I grew up on more than cement, and through my mom’s West Coast roots, I inherited a love of the ocean. At the end of the week, when the bus pulled into the school parking lot to drop off dozens of my classmates and me, I heard loud laughs from my best buddies. My pal Paul Grayson screamed, “Luke, look at your dad!” I first saw my mother, standing off to the side with a huge smile, and then there was Dad with a jack-o’-lantern grin, waving an American flag and holding up a sign that read WELCOME HOME BOYS!
Some might find it strange that the well-known host of Meet the Press was yelling and waving a flag like a maniac, but that was Dad. He was so excited to see me and his love was so strong that he didn’t care that he might look silly greeting me as if I had just been deployed. At first I was a little annoyed at him because I thought his stunt was corny, but he rounded up my friends and shouted, “We’re going to Burger King! After a week of rabbit food, supersize for everybody!” You just had to love him. But even then, I didn’t fully appreciate his intense love till I left for college. It was hard on both of us because I knew I could no longer just open his door, plop down in a chair and talk, but we adapted, thanks to cell phones. If my future kid ever reads this, we’ll be on the unlimited texting plan because I’ll be blowing up your phone!
WHILE DAD’S LOVE FOR ME RAN DEEP, he had an affinity for all children. When friends called the house the first question out of his mouth would be, “How’s your boy, how’s your girl, how’d their soccer team do?” The day my father passed, my colleague Chuck Todd said on NBC that he had never before had a boss who was as interested and as happy talking about other people’s children as he was about his own son.
My father was certainly comfortable with his emotions but like my grandpa, he rarely cried openly. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw him in tears, and four of those had to be the Bills Super Bowl losses! But the time I remember most was when I was in second grade. Because I had a booming voice, my Sunday-school teacher decided that I should read the prayer intentions at the children’s mass the following Sunday. Dad was thrilled; being a talented public speaker, he always took pride when I excelled at the craft. During that week we practiced my prayers around the kitchen table. One was for “all the children in the world who are sick, sad, tired, suffering or alone.” Twenty years later, I remember those words exactly. When I said them out loud, my father choked up and his eyes became wet. He paused, stared at me and said, “Think about that, buddy. Think about it.”
He never missed an opportunity to help children. Whether it was working with the Boys & Girls Club or Catholic Education, Dad always said yes. He gave dozens of commencement speeches and in his closing paragraphs, he almost always said:
“Unless we instill in our young the most basic social skills and cultural and moral values . . . we will be a very different society. We must motivate, inspire—yes, insist—our children respect one another . . . ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ . . . No matter what profession you choose, you must try, even in the smallest ways, to improve the quality of life of all the children in our country. When my life is over, there’s nothing more I’ll be judged on than what kind of father I was.” In another commencement speech, he added: “If we are serious about continuing as the world’s premier military, and economic and moral force in the world, we have no choice. We need all of our children contributing and prospering.”
This is a great country, but when it comes to fatherhood, and two-parent households, he knew we were falling short. One out of three children grows up without their biological father in the home. Statistics show that this means they’re more likely to be poor, have a higher chance of being incarcerated or becoming pregnant as a teen, using drugs, dropping out of school, or suffering from behavioral issues. What better way for children to achieve than to have their fathers in their lives? This is an epidemic in 2014, and if my father were still around, he’d shed light on it.
I’m at an age now where many of my friends are getting married and starting their own journey into fatherhood. I’m often asked what sort of lessons my father passed down to me on the topic. Since he died when I was twenty-two, we never really had the official how-to-be-a-dad conversation. Yet I can imagine what he would say based on how he raised me and on the stories his friends have told me.
A colleague of mine at NBC once told me she always asked my father to stick around for an additional taped interview after his Today show appearances, which on most days were on at around seven in the morning. Almost every time he would politely tell her, “No, I got to take my kid to school.” She admitted that she was often perplexed as to why staying fifteen or twenty minutes longer was such a big deal to him. A few years ago I got an email from her; she told me that as a new mom not only did she totally understand where my dad was coming from, but she would do everything in her power never to miss dropping off her daughter at school, because the time was too precious.
It’s true; the greatest gift my father ever gave me was his time. Here was a man who worked seven days a week, rarely slept more than six hours a night, and yet I can never remember a time when he wasn’t there for me or didn’t make a Herculean effort to be present. Heck, he tried to interview Florida politicians when I had spring-training JV baseball games! I understand that not all fathers can afford to do that. Jobs, commitments, etc. don’t always lend themselves to kids being number one all the time. However, I do know that if a father makes an effort to be there, a kid will always notice and always appreciate it because as a kid you feel loved, wanted, and cared about, and you can’t ask for more than that.
Another thing my father was big on was conversation. He would inquire about my day over dinner, call me to ask a simple “How ya doing?” Through these conversations we bonded over sports, politics, music, and just simple human interests. Sometimes after watching a Bills game together, I felt like we had solved the world’s problems! When I was a young kid, on Fridays after work Dad would sometimes take me to his local watering hole. A few beers for him, and some Coca-Colas for me as a reward if I had behaved during the week. If I hadn’t I was stuck with milk. He would usually meet a friend or mom after her exercise class, but sometimes it was just the two of us. He’d give me money for the jukebox and a request: “Springsteen.” How do you spell it, I’d ask, and he’d say, “Spring like the season and then s-t-een; no ei, just een.”
I would play three Beach Boys songs (my favorite) and then one Bruce song for him. He’d interact with customers in the bar. Many were kind and just wanted to shoot the breeze; others wanted to talk about their political opinions, the Buffalo Bills, or had ideas for how Meet the Press could be even better. I noticed that no matter what, Dad would always try to be nice. He told me that came from Grandpa, and the old lesson that “it takes just as long to be mean to somebody as it does to be nice.”
Working in TV news I’m exposed to a fair amount of, shall we say, people who take the time to be mean. In fact, people these days seem to relish the art of “trolling” or being perpetually “snarky.” I’m not quite sure what that says about us as a society, but I feel as if the days are behind us when someone like my dad stood at a bar and talked to people. Inclusion and communication are important, both in parenting and basic societal understanding. Talk to kids—they’ll relish it—and maybe carry on a conversation with a person in front of them so they learn how to do more than just stare at a phone screen.
FATHER’S DAY was my dad’s favorite day. For me it’s a holiday of mixed emotions: Father’s Day will never be the same for me because it usually falls a few days after the anniversary of my dad’s death. This book is about the eternal relationship between fathers and sons. I hope this book deepens the love between all fathers and their children.
Loss is hard, and on Father’s Day those of us without a dad tend to be in a funk. My friend Bo Blair is a father of three, but he also lost his dad at a young age. He told me once, “God this day sucks, but when you do something your dad loved it feels so much better.” I try and go to a baseball game and soak in the joy of the fathers who are there with their kids. Friends will call and check in; my college buddy Mike Greeley makes sure to tell me he’s drinking a Rolling Rock in honor of TJR. I do that, too.
Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my dad and recall his face from the last time I saw him, but I know he’s here. He’s in these pages, in these stories, and he’s with everyone who believes being a father is the most important job in the world. There are many different walks of life in this country, but fatherhood is the great equalizer. You don’t have to be rich to be a good dad. You don’t have to have a fancy degree to be a good dad. Or drive a nice car. You just have to care, and that’s something we all can do because that’s what Tim Russert did—he cared.
ON ELECTION NIGHT 2000, I sat on the NBC set with Tom Brokaw as state after state was projected for either George W. Bush or Al Gore. In trying to make sense of the election results, I started writing, in bold print on the back of a legal pad, the names of the states that were still being contested. As I added new states and crossed out others, and held up my homemade chart to the camera, I could almost see my dad nodding his head and saying, “Now I understand. Now I get it. Keep it simple. Forget those fancy computers.”
Jeff Zucker, who was producing our election coverage and who liked my low-tech efforts to explain the latest developments, noticed that the cardboard I was writing on was becoming increasingly messy and difficult to read. So he sent somebody to buy a couple of white dry-erase boards, which would be easier to work with. For the rest of the night, I used those boards to show how close each candidate was to the 270 electoral votes he needed to become our forty-third president.
Over the next few days, NBC News received a lot of positive comments for the way we kept track of an enormously complicated election with what one reviewer described as “homespun comfort.” My son, Luke, who was fifteen, said, “Dad, what are you going to do with that board you were using?”
“Actually, there were two of them,” I said. “I promised one to the Newseum,” the museum of news in Washington, D.C., that had opened in 1997.
“How about the other one?” he asked. “Could I have it?”
“Sure,” I said. I was moved that my son wanted this keepsake of his father’s work on election night. Just as I was starting to get emotional about the bond between us, Luke said, “Thanks, Dad. You know what this thing is worth on eBay?”
The legal pad that I used on Election Day was an idea that came straight from Dad. As long as I can remember, he has used an 8½-by-11 yellow legal pad to keep track of the household budget. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still using the very same kind he had when I was a boy.
When I was in high school, my older sister Betty Ann’s boyfriend, Bill Buckenroth, came to our house to ask Dad for her hand in marriage. Dad was in his usual spot, sitting in the living room with the newspaper.
“Mr. Russert,” Bill said, “I want to marry your daughter.”
Dad dropped his paper on the floor. “You what?”
“I want to marry your daughter.”
“You do? You’re still in school! How the hell are you going to support her?” Without waiting for an answer, Dad got up, walked out of the room, and went downstairs to take a shower.
He was gone for at least forty minutes. As he waited for Dad to come back, Bill paced nervously. My sister cried, and my mother tried to comfort her.
Finally, the shower water stopped. Ten minutes later, we heard footsteps on the stairs, car keys jingling, and the sound of a door slamming. Big Russ was gone.
About an hour later, Dad came back, went to the bedroom, pulled a sheet off his legal pad, and brought it into the living room. “Bill,” he said, “I want you to show me in black and white how you’re going to support her. Keep it simple, so I can understand it. Nothing complicated and nothing phony. Just give me the real numbers.” Bill went to the kitchen table and Dad went back to his chair. A few minutes later, they went over the numbers together. Dad must have liked what he saw, because the next thing I knew, he and Bill were driving over to the Legion Hall to celebrate the engagement over a couple of cold ones.
On Election Day 2000, I was doing it Dad’s way—first with my legal pad, and then with the two dry-erase boards. As for my sister and Bill, they recently celebrated their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.
THE OLDER I GET, the smarter my father seems to get. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t remember or rely on something that Big Russ taught me. As I began to think about the lessons I learned from him, I started talking to some friends about the lessons they learned from their fathers. Jayce Caulfield’s dad, Thomas, who was known in our neighborhood as Sarge, was superintendent of parks for the City of Buffalo. Sarge used to hire teenage boys to keep them off the streets and to “give them a shot,” as he liked to say. If a kid didn’t show up to work in the morning, Sarge would drive to his house, go upstairs, and personally drag him out of bed. Now that’s tough love.
My friend Dick Eaton used to refer to his father as “the Wallet.” (I know what he meant: my son sometimes refers to me as the human ATM.) As they got older, Dick and his brother started calling their father “the Apple,” because he was the apple of their eye. Dick’s father, Paul F. Eaton, is a small-town lawyer who never thought of himself as being smarter than the big city rainmakers, although he probably is. “He knew,” says Dick, “that if he worked harder and prepared more than other lawyers, his chances of success were that much better. That’s what he taught us: preparation is everything.”
My friend Larry Tierney is a physician in California. His father, who was known as D.T.—for Doc Tierney—was a doctor, too. Doc Tierney taught his son that treatment is the easy part of medicine; the real challenge is getting the diagnosis right. And the key to the right diagnosis, he would say, comes from really listening to the patient. He warned his son against the danger of arrogance. “The minute you think you’re any good in this business,” he told Larry, “that’s when you’re going to start harming your patients.”
MY DAD AND I SHARE THE SAME NAME, and when I was very young, he was known as Tim and I was Timmy. When I was around ten, people called us Big Tim and Little Tim. In high school, when I shot up to six foot two and no longer qualified as “Little” Tim, I started referring to Dad as Big Russ, as in, “There’ll be hell to pay when Big Russ finds out about this,” and I’ve thought of him as Big Russ ever since. Not long ago, I overheard Luke referring to me as “the Big Guy,” as in, “It sounds okay, but I have to check with the Big Guy.”
Although Dad and I have always been close, our relationship has never been marked by open displays of affection. But that changed a few years ago, when NBC organized a series called “Going Home,” in which the network’s news anchors and the hosts of its major news programs returned to the communities where they grew up and talked about the values and the cultures that shaped their lives.
On January 1, 1997, I traveled to the American Legion Post 721 in South Buffalo, where Dad had once been the commander. Every New Year’s Day, the Legion hosts an open house for its members and their families, and I asked Dad what time I should arrive with the NBC news crew. He said we should come at noon. I asked him what time the festivities started. He said they ran from one o’clock to four.
“Then why should we be there at noon?” I asked.
“Because the food and the drinks are free.”
At the Legion Hall, we pushed some tables together and sat with Dad and his buddies. Dad looked into the camera and talked about the men like himself who returned home after World War II. “They wanted community,” he said. “They wanted a home. They wanted a good reputation with their kids. What’s the old saying? ‘Your nose to the grindstone and hope for the best.’”
That expression—it’s actually two expressions squeezed together—captures the essence of Dad: endlessly hardworking and eternally optimistic.
The next day, I went down to city hall to visit with Anthony Masiello. Tony’s dad, Danny Masiello, used to work on the garbage trucks with my dad. They would dream about their sons having a better life, and I guess their dreams came true. Today, one is the moderator of Meet the Press, and the other is the mayor of Buffalo.
We concluded the piece for NBC Nightly News by walking down the sidewalk in my old neighborhood. As we walked along, side by side, I spontaneously put my hand around Dad’s shoulder. In closing, I said, “They shaped our destiny. We stand on their shoulders. Tim Russert, NBC News, Buffalo, New York.”
- On Sale
- May 6, 2014
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Hachette Books