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Lessons of a Catholic Mensch

July 14, 2008


It was not a typical Father’s Day in America. Sunday, June 15, 2008 became a day of mournful celebration. The morning began for me and millions of others viewing NBC and its’ Today Show, not normally shown on Sunday. This was followed by a Meet the Press that started by displaying an empty desk, the desk that Tim Russert had occupied for the last seventeen years. America’s preeminent “ television newsman” and writer of two best-selling books about fathers died on Friday the 13th, two days before Father’s Day.

            Once the three bells and distinctive brass instruments of the theme song from Today sounded on CNBC on my XM radio in my work office on Friday afternoon, I went home and watched TV news coverage on MSNBC, CNN, and NBC, transfixed by the recurring images of Russert from Meet the Press, his election day assignments, from his cable talk show, as well as photos of Tim’s wife and son, Luke, and his father, “Big Russ,” in a constant loop. His handwritten words, “Florida, Florida, Florida,” written on a white chalkboard on Election Night 2000, was shown at least a dozen times.

            When a public figure that we spend more time with than our extended family dies, we feel a sudden chilling loss. When that someone is a person as exuberant, passionate,   influential, and memorable as Tim Russert, the loss seems so much harder.

            I myself could hardly budge from my chair over the weekend. On Father’s Day, I hardly felt like celebrating. My father’s health has been slowly weakening in the last two years; my father-in-law has Parkinson’s disease and has had insomnia for months, and this week is discussing his funeral. I am 51 years old, have gained 20 pounds in the last year, have high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. Over the Father’s Day weekend, my mood was exceptionally low.

            Tim died at work when a cholesterol plaque dislodged and ruptured, causing an occlusive coronary thrombus in his left anterior descending artery. He had turned 58 five weeks and two days earlier.

            Tim was one of my heroes, honest, hard-working, passionate, devoted to his family, country, and Catholic religion. He laughed and joked and cared about kids. He wanted Americans to know the truth about our politicians, our candidates. He grilled them on Meet the Press each week, always “taking the other side.” He may have been friendly and respectful but he made each guest accountable for their own words and actions, past and present.

            He was the ultimate son and father, loving, proud, always striving to communicate honestly and simply. What we thought, Tim said; what we felt inside, Tim showed outside on his face and with his tongue. Now, it’s too late for any more of his interviews and words. We are left to watch TV footage and read his books to get a dose of his exuberance and joy.

            On Father’s Day, we realized that we had lost one of the fathers of television news. He was like a father to many of his viewers and we trusted him to help take care of our country like a father should.

            Now, we can wander aimlessly, trying to learn from his life. “Go get ‘em,” he would tell his news reporters in the Washington Bureau that he managed. Now, we have to imagine him saying, “Go get ‘em” to us. Can we strive to be courageous, honest, passionate, and still believe in our country? One of Tim’s favorite phrases was “What a country!” Will we in America strive like Tim to prepare every day for work, for life, to believe that if we give every thing we have, we might reach a higher level?     

The old catchphrase when Michael Jordan was winning championships for the Chicago Bulls was, “Be Like Mike.” Today, the mantra spinning in my mind is, “Be like Russ.” Not the Big Russ who was Tim’s dad, the man who inspired him by taking care of four kids by working two jobs, just quietly being a good father who worked and lived with honor. Russ to me and so many more is Tim Russert, and what I remember so clearly is his big smile, the way he cajoled the people he talked with to come clean and be honest about themselves.

Tim Russert was a devout Catholic but I can’t think of any public or private figure who radiated the definition of menschkeit more than Tim. He was “admired, respected, and trusted because of a sense of ethics, fairness, and nobility;” he was just a fundamentally decent and good person.

 Without ever meeting him, I can still relate to Tim as a mentor. His passionate enthusiasm for America, families, and life was contagious. His smile was broad, his excited intelligence was exhilarating, and his caring for so many others was inspiring. If I can live the next seven years aspiring to the legacy of Russert, I would be satisfied to drop dead at 58. If I can live with the passion, love, and joy of “Little Russ,” I will count my life as a “noble” success.

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