2016-06-30
This interview was first published on Beliefnet for Father's Day 2006.

Tim Russert
Tim Russert, with his father, "Big Russ,"
and son, Luke. Credit: Kelly Campbell


When newsman Tim Russert published a memoir about his father, "Big Russ and Me," he says he wasn't prepared for the huge number of letters and emails he received from readers eager to talk about their own fathers. He's now compiled some of the best of those responses into a follow-up book, "Wisdom of Our Fathers." Russert, the moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," spoke with Beliefnet about his father's reaction to the book, his own role as a father, and the place of prayer in his life.

Why do you think your first book resonated so much with readers and generated so much reaction that there was all this material for a second book?

When I first wrote "Big Russ and Me," I thought that certainly people I grew up with in the Irish Catholic neighborhood in Buffalo would want to read it. But as I went around the country and people lined up and said, "Make this book out to Big Mike and Big Mario and Big Manuel and Big Irv and Big Ahmed," I realized that no matter the geography, the ethnicity, the religion, people had perceived "Big Russ and Me" as an invitation to talk about their dad. People started saying to me, "You know, the most important thing I learned from my dad was not about expensive vacations or material gifts. It was about hard work and discipline and respect and accountability. It was the small words that made the big difference."

People began to inundate me with letters and emails--60,000 from across the country. I read them all. And as I read them, I felt that they deserved to be read and also be remembered, and that any parent would benefit enormously from the lessons that daughters and sons learn by watching their fathers’ actions, probably much more than his words. A friend of mine from Oklahoma sent me a note the other day, saying, "You know, you're exactly right. It's better to watch a sermon than to hear one."


There's such a truth to that. You can try to lecture kids and they sit there and look at you kind of glazed, but when they see you working hard, when they see you treating their mother with respect, when they see you doing the right and honorable thing, that's the behavior they want to imitate and emulate. And those are the lasting lessons of life.

Do you have a favorite story of all the 60,000 that you received?

There are so many. One of my favorites is William Murray, who wrote a note saying, "When I was the son, my dad was boss. And then I had a son, and my son was boss. When do I get to be boss?" He had some humor over it.

His favorite letters
Andrea DeFusco wrote a beautiful letter about her dad, Alfred, who worked hard. And he would leave her little notes in her lunch bucket or at the breakfast table, congratulating her on her spelling or her math work, and often had a little caricature of a duck. And then he died and, about 10 years after his death, she was over at his house cleaning up hedges and things. And she reached up to get the shears, and what came tumbling down were the shears and a pair of gloves and a pair of goggles. And the gloves smelled of Aqua Velva, the cologne her dad wore. And then inside the goggles, he had left a little note before he died, which said, "Beautiful brown eyes, please protect those eyes." And she realized 10 years later that her dad was still there in spirit protecting her. And that is particularly memorable.

I loved the letter from Kerry Bostwick, who was a stutterer. And her dad would reach across the backseat of the car and pull her close and squeeze her hand and say, "Kerry, it's okay." And it would help her get over her stuttering. And I can almost imagine her today, you know, squeezing her own hand and helping her through that difficult circumstance.

And on and on and on. There's just story after story, lesson after lesson.

And do you have a favorite story about your own father?

A memorable father-son moment
Well, so many. You know, my dad, after he read "Big Russ and Me," said, "You made a mistake." I said, "Dad, I didn't make a mistake. I vetted the book so carefully and I really tried to be precise and be accurate."

He said, "Yeah, you say I always call you and say you've got to eat." I said, "You do. You call me on my birthday at 7:00 A.M. and say, 'You've got to eat. You've got to eat. What are you having for supper?'" I said, "Dad, I haven't had breakfast yet."

He said, "Well, that's half the expression. The full expression is, 'You've got to eat if you're going to drink.'" So I said, "Dad--come on, I'm not going to college anymore," and he laughed like crazy.

But he took the book to heart. It came out in May of '04, and in November of '04 I went home for Thanksgiving. We were loading our car to go back to the airport. And my dad came up to me. And normally, he was not someone who said a lot. I knew he loved me because I saw it by his hard work and by his actions, but he never used those words until Thanksgiving of '04 after the book had come out.

We usually say, "Good-bye" by a half of a handshake and half of a hug. And suddenly he engulfed me in a bear hug and grabbed me and pulled me close and said, "I love you." And that was a big deal. I wish I'd written the book 30 years ago.Why do you think that it is so hard for so many fathers to be that expressive emotionally?

I think men from his generation had to grow up fast. He left school in the 10th grade to go fight World War II. You don't have much adolescence or much youth when you're thrown into that kind of situation. And I think they saw some extraordinary things during that time. And then they came home and he worked two full-time jobs as a sanitation man and a truck driver. And so, his perception of who he was, I think, was different than a lot of men in 2006.

The wonderful thing in "Wisdom of our Fathers" is that a lot of sons and daughters say that their dad never said to them the three magic words, "I love you," but they always knew it. They always felt secure. They always felt love. But it was just a generation that preferred to show it through actions rather than words.


In the book you say that you didn't expect to include a chapter on forgiveness. Why not, and why did you in the end?

Because in my own circumstance, as many times as I had an argument or a dispute with my parents, it was always resolved and usually within an hour, certainly a day. There was never anything lingering or protracted.

But when I receive a lot of letters of children and dads who had real estrangement--Becky Blanton for 15 years, until she learned her dad was dying of cancer--I realized that that was something that existed across the country and it was important to talk about. Because these sons and daughters and their fathers show that you can heal, you can reconcile. And I thought it was important that people who were in that current circumstance would read this and learn from it, because you only have one dad and you only have one mom. And I think it's important for a son or a daughter, and certainly their grandchildren, that a family is able to reconcile and to forgive.

You talk in the book about your role as a father. I'm going to be a father for the first time soon, and I was wondering if you have any advice for a father-to-be like myself?

Advice for a father-to-be
Congratulations! I do. The first thing is that my dad worked two full-time jobs, as I mentioned, and so he was away working all the time. And that made a very strong impression on me. I respected him for it, but I wish that he had been at my games and school events. And so, I made a pledge to myself that if I was ever blessed to be a father I would make sure that I had a job that would allow me to partake very actively in those kinds of events and activities of my son or daughter.

As it turned out, I had a son, and I was able to coach his teams. And because of my situation with NBC, I was able to take my cell phone and beeper and go to the games and still come back in case of a news emergency. But I made a point of that and I really think that is so important, so essential, if you can possibly work it out.

Secondly, it's being there. It is just being there. It's not the organized vacations that really, truly matter. My son is now in college. Whenever he flies home from college, I go to the airport and pick him up. He could easily take a taxi. But I want to go there. I want to wait for the luggage with him. I want to ride in the car with him because you can talk to him or you can hear him talking on the cell phone. You learn something. And it's invaluable that you have that conversation, that you have that kind of--that relationship, that bonding, if you will.

And third, it is a recognition that I grew up differently in Buffalo in the '50s and '60s than my son is growing up in Washington now. And while I'm much more expressive in telling him that I love him than my dad was with me, it is important that he also hear that you're always holding his love but you're never, never entitled. Because it's very easy for children in this era to slip into a sense of entitlement, a sense that the world revolves around them as opposed to [knowing that] there's something bigger than themselves.

My son's name is Luke. And I remind him of the Gospel of Luke, "To whom much is given, much is expected." And I think it is very important for a father in this time to keep reinforcing the same timeless lessons of life that my dad taught me: preparation, discipline, respect, accountability. It doesn't change.

I'm glad you brought up this issue of balancing career and time spent, which is so often spoken of as a mother's issue. Why is that? You've reached such heights at NBC: It must have been very difficult at times to kind of fend off the demands of work. It can be and, traditionally, the father was the hunter, the provider; the mother's the nurturer. But I think we're now in a situation where many families have two parents working. Some have made a choice not to have that.

The one thing that I have in my life experienced with my son is that both parents have to be nurturers. You can learn different things from your mom than you can learn from your dad. Charles Barkley, the NBA All Star great, said that his dad was not present as he grew up. And he said, "No one taught me how to be a man" and he had to learn himself and he made some mistakes on that path. I just think it's worth the sacrifice.

There will always be another meeting to go to. There will always be another promotion. But there will never be another opportunity to raise your child. And it is such a blessing, such a gift, such a responsibility. And if you're there at the creation, I think you have to be there every step of the way through their growth and development.

In the introduction to the new book, you talk about going into a church and praying while your wife was having difficulty in the hospital delivering. What is the role of prayer in your life?

The role of prayer in his life
I’m someone who grew up taught by the Sisters of Mercy and the Jesuits. And both those nuns and those priests taught me, and taught us, my classmates, how to pray--that it simply wasn't the recitation of memorized prayer but meditation and contemplation.

The situation you're talking about is when my wife was in labor for a long time, I walked out of the hospital and walked around the corner and there was a church. And actually, it was a shrine to Saint Elizabeth who is the mother of Mary, the mother of God, which is more than ironic and important.

And so I, constantly, realize it's a long road, it's a long journey, and we can't get there alone. And so I'm very open and find it quite necessary to ask for help and assistance and inspiration. And that comes in a very powerful way in the form of prayer.

Did you--or do you--pray with your father, and is there a particular power in families praying together?

Part of our routine, if you will, in preparing for bed--not only brushing our teeth and putting our pajamas on--we said our prayers every night. And my mom would often lead us in the prayers, or my dad if he was there.

We always went to Mass on Sunday morning as a family. They used to have a Children's Mass, it was called, and there were six of us so we would take up a half of row. It's a very important memory to me and continues to be a very important part of my life.

Do you have a favorite prayer?

Some of his favorite prayers
The prayer of Saint Francis is very important to me. "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." And certainly, I've always found great comfort in the Our Father. I can still recite the Gloria in Latin, which I learned when I was an altar boy, and I also took four years of Latin.

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