Father's Day: Life lessons from Tim Russert

Since Tim Russert's death was announced by NBC Friday afternoon, prominent journalists and politicians have paid tribute to him. I won't attempt to compete with the likes of Andrea Mitchell, Tom Brokaw, Barack Obama, the Clintons or various members of the Kennedy family, who praised Russert as the best political journalist of our time, a devout Catholic, patriot, devoted father and husband and loving son.

Instead, I'll try to explain why I cried for an hour last night while watching televised tributes to a man I never met. For starters, I am a Jesuit-educated journalist with working class roots and a passion for politics. Russert's son Luke just graduated from Boston College, my alma mater. Russert was a fellow Bruce Springsteen fan, something I learned a decade or so ago when I read an essay titled Springsteen & Me in a magazine called P.O.V. So we had a few things in common.

My husband wondered why I was so saddened by Russert's death when I didn't shed a tear for the nine Boy Scouts killed by the Midwest tornadoes this week or the Chinese schoolchildren who died in the earthquake. Why would I grieve for a complete stranger? It's a valid question, but I felt like I knew Tim Russert because I knew what he stood for. I admired and respected him as a journalist, but what impressed me most is that once he achieved fame and fortune, he didn't change or forget where he came from, to use the cliche. Instead, he was grounded, to use a word used to describe Russert since his death. The same has been said of Bruce, whose lyrics give voice to the plight of the common man.

This morning, I spent 20 minutes digging through old files in my basement for the Springsteen & Me essay. In it, Russert describes the many jobs he worked in his hometown, Buffalo, NY, long before he went to work for New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan or became the moderator of Meet the Press. Back in 1974, Russert organized a Springsteen concert at John Carroll University in Cleveland to help pay for law school-hence the title. But the essay is really about the lessons he learned about life and work doing that and other menial jobs in his formative years.

I am not sure why I saved this article, except maybe that I was impressed that someone so important was a fellow Springsteen fan. Now, I will keep it so I can someday pass along the life lessons Russert learned to my own children, who seem smitten with money, power and fame at an early age. Here is an excerpt:

In the early days there were times, I admit, when I was intimidated. I was the son of a truck driver and housewife from Buffalo, who went to two small schools in Cleveland. And here I was at the U.S. Capitol surrounded by graduates of Harvard, Yale and the London School of Economics...When I expressed this sentiment to Senator Moynihan, he put his arm around me. "What they know, you can learn," he said. "But what you learned on the streets, they'll never understand." And he was right. In every job I've had, whether congressional aide or network executive, the sundry experiences of my early 20s-driving cabs, hauling garbage, investigating corruption, promoting Bruce Springsteen concerts-gave me a broad base of experience and knowledge that I apply almost every day. At the time, when I was stuck working odd jobs while my friends were backpacking though Europe I thought I got the short end of the stick. I later realized that I came out ahead.

As Russert was known to say, Amen.

Michele Turk is a journalist and author whose book, Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross, was published in 2006. She recently founded e street press, a self-publishing company.

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