The opening dinner of the 2015 Catholic Media Conference in Buffalo included a tribute to Tim Russert, the late NBC journalist, devout Catholic and proud son of Buffalo. Here are 10 lessons from Tim Russert’s life for journalists in the Catholic press.
1.) Honor your father (and mother) – When Tim Russert, the longtime moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” wrote a best-selling book, it was not about the world of politics. Russert’s book, “Big Russ & Me,” was about his dad’s influence on his life and work. “Big Russ” worked two full-time jobs for the sanitation department and delivering newspapers so the family’s four children could attend Catholic school. Russert took the example of his father’s decency and hard work with him, every time he sat at his anchor desk.
2.) Stay true to your Catholic school and thank your teachers – In seventh grade at St. Bonaventure School in Buffalo, Russert’s teacher, Sister Mary Lucille Socciarelli, a Religious Sister of Mercy, pulled him aside and said, “Timmy, we have to find a way to channel your excessive energy. I’m starting a new school newspaper, and you’re going to be the editor.” Russert credited Sister Lucille with inspiring him to become a journalist, and he later established the Sister Mary Lucille Outstanding Teacher Award to honor teachers for the impact they have on their students’ lives. Teachers like Sister Lucille, he said, can take a wide-eyed student in the back of class, and encourage them that “you can do anything in life.”
3.) Stay disciplined in your life and work – Another of Tim Russert’s favorite teachers was Jesuit Father John Sturm, the prefect of discipline at Canisius High School in Buffalo, “a short, tough, cigar-smoking dark-haired priest… with huge, Popeye-like forearms,” Russert wrote in “Big Russ & Me.” The priest who told him, “Russert, mercy is for God. I deliver justice,” taught the journalist important lessons about self-discipline and fairness that shaped his approach to life and work.
4.) Remember where you came from – In “Big Russ & Me,” Russert wrote, “I grew up in South Buffalo, a warm and tightly knit neighborhood where most people were Irish Catholics and everyone seemed to know one another.” In that neighborhood, he learned the importance of devotion to faith, family and friends, from quiet heroes like his father, a World War II veteran who once drove a trash truck to support his family. In South Buffalo, Russert learned simple values like the importance of a firm handshake, and perhaps sometimes trudging to school through mountains of snow and being a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan taught him the importance of not letting occasional challenges or disappointments defeat you or sidetrack you from your goal.
5.) Remember where you’re going – Writing about his Catholic faith in “Big Russ & Me,” Russert noted, “Religion was everywhere in our lives – not just in church or in school, but at home, too.” Russert often spoke about how his faith was central to his life, and he noted that on his work assignments throughout the nation and world, he never missed Mass. After he died of a heart attack in 2008 at the age of 58, one of his many friends, Ethel Kennedy, said, “He’ll be right at home in heaven.” That was the ultimate goal for the journalist, who on the air and at Mass, often said, “Amen.”
6.) Cover the story with zeal and joy – An indelible image of Tim Russert was him smiling mischievously and holding a dry erase board with the words “Florida, Florida, Florida” as he underscored the importance of that state’s electoral votes in the tight 2000 presidential election. Long before Pope Francis wrote about “The Joy of the Gospel,” Russert approached his life and work with a sense of joy and wonder, and knew how blessed he was to tell the story of the news unfolding before him
7.) Treat everyone with respect – To help pay for his college costs, Tim Russert worked summers doing as his father had done, bundling and delivering newspapers and joining the crews on garbage trucks. Later, he served as a top aide to New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom he said taught him “to respect true intelligence, ask good questions and disagree agreeably.” Those lessons about respecting all people shaped Russert’s interviews, and after his death, his mourners included leaders from both major political parties, and people from all walks of life.
8.) Be a man (or woman) for others – Russert generously shared his time as a speaker at charitable events and at college commencements. Addressing the John Carroll Society in Washington in 2004, Russert said he took to heart the closing words of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Let us go forth… asking (God’s) blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
9.) Share the story of what you’ve learned – Tim Russert concluded “Big Russ & Me” with a letter to his son Luke, who was then about to begin college and who is now following in his father’s footsteps as a correspondent for NBC News. Tim Russert wrote, “You do, however, owe this world something. To live a good and decent and meaningful life would be the ultimate affirmation of Grandpa’s lessons and values.”
10.) When covering the pope, remember that he’s the pope, and you’re not – In a 1992 article for Catholic News Service, Sister Mary Ann Walsh noted that Tim Russert had a favorite anecdote about meeting Pope John Paul II in the mid-1980s. She wrote that the pope squeezed the newsman’s shoulder, saying, “They tell me you’re a very important man.” Russert for his part demurred, replying, “There are only two of us here, Holy Father, and I am a far-distant second.” The pope nodded and replied, “That’s right!”
(Zimmermann is the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington and serves as the Eastern regional representative on the board of directors for the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.)