Son’s tribute highlights memorial service for Tim Russert

Luke Russert: “I love you, Dad. And in his words, let us all ‘go get ’em!’ ”

Luke Russert borrows from ‘Big Russ & Me’ to comfort all those who mourn newsman from Buffalo

WASHINGTON — Walking to the podium at the Kennedy Center before a crowd of 2,000 that included a former president, the secretary of state and countless other “Meet the Press” guests, 22-year-old Luke Russert on Wednesday repeated the perfect words to comfort the millions who join him in mourning the loss of his father.

Luke Russert couldn’t find those words in W.B. Yeats, James Joyce or Mark Twain, but he found them in Chapter 20 of his father’s book “Big Russ & Me.”

In a chapter called “Loss,” Tim Russert wrote about his friend Michael Gartner, who lost his 17-year-old son to acute juvenile diabetes.

“After his passing, my dad phoned Michael,” Luke Russert said. “And he said to him, ‘Michael, think of it this way: What if God had come to you and said, ‘I’m going to make you an offer. I will give you a beautiful, a wonderful, happy, and lovable son for 17 years, but then it will be time for him to come home.’ You would make that deal in a second, right?’ ”

“Well, I only had 22 years, but I, too, would make that deal in a heartbeat,” the young Russert, beaming with pride, said in a strong and resolute broadcaster’s voice.

So would countless others who admired Tim Russert, the iconic “Meet the Press” host and South Buffalo native who died of a heart attack Friday.

A day after Russert fans drove from as far away as South Dakota and flew in from California for his wake, official Washington got its chance to pay tribute to the NBC newsman, first at a private funeral where Luke Russert delivered the eulogy and then at the memorial service where he shared the stage with the likes of Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams and Mario Cuomo.

Brokaw noted the extraordinary impact that Russert’s death has had on the nation.

“Since Friday, all of us have been swamped with e-mails and phone calls, strangers on the street, tears in their eyes, sharing their grief and sense of loss,” Brokaw said. “A postal worker with a heavy Spanish accent stopped me on the streets of New York sobbing, saying that he was sick — sick when he heard the news of Mr. Russert. A construction foreman stopped me and said he was so, so smart, and he seemed to be one of us.”

Like several of the speakers, Brokaw made special mention of Russert’s father and inspiration, “Big Russ”— Timothy J. Russert Sr. — who recently moved into an assisted-living facility in Orchard Park and could not attend the services.

“Big Russ, you may remember about a dozen years ago, you sent me this,” Brokaw said, showing off a mug from American Legion Post 721 in South Buffalo. “And for every morning since that time, it has been my first companion as I brush my teeth.” But no more.

“I’m going to set this mug aside. I’m going to save it for election night. I’m going to fill it with this Rolling Rock that I pilfered just today from Tim’s cooler, here in Washington,” Brokaw said. “And so on election night, Big Russ, I will raise this glass to you. For your gift to us of Tim and to your favorite saying, it was his and mine as well: ‘What a country.’ ”

Brokaw’s successor as anchor of NBC News, Brian Williams, noted that Russert’s last words before he collapsed, spoken to an editor at the network’s Washington Bureau, where Russert was chief, were words he spoke all the time: “What’s happening?”

“And he never made another sound,” Williams said. “[It’s] fitting probably because Tim was all about what’s happening, what’s happening with everybody and everything, especially along his power corridor, Buffalo to the Beltway.”

Although only one person from Buffalo shared the stage Wednesday, the city was as present throughout the memorial service as it was in Russert’s life.

One of his seventh-grade teachers, Sister Lucille Socciarelli of Buffalo, recalled how the 13-year-old Russert urged her to join the pupils on the athletic fields outside St. Bonaventure Elementary School.

“ ‘Go, sister!’ he’d say. ‘Run!’ Tim would shout, urging me on — rosary beads flying, veil flying,” she said. “Not only did Tim choose me for his team, he always picked the kids that he thought might not be chosen at all.”

Meanwhile, Cuomo recalled a visit to Buffalo with Russert, who served as an aide to the governor at the time, shortly after the state enacted its then-controversial seat belt law.

The governor’s car got struck from behind — and the governor, who sat in the front but forgot to buckle his seat belt, flew forward toward the dashboard. That prompted the governor’s car to come to a halt and the press to swarm around it, shouting: “How’s the governor?”

Russert, emerging from the car, replied: “Thank God for the seat belt!”

That was just one of the countless stories told at the service that showed both Russert’s wit and his warmth.

Former NBC reporter Maria Shriver — now California’s first lady — recalled Russert’s comforting calls when her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was going in and out of intensive care this past year.

“He talked with me about losing his own mother,” who died several years ago,” she said. “He talked to me about how it felt, how hard it was for him. He talked to me about where he found support, about the role of his faith in that struggle. He shared his struggle with me so that mine would be a little bit easier.”

And in a surprise appearance via video from Europe, where he is touring, Rust Belt rock poet Bruce Springsteen recalled performing at the “Today” show and seeing Russert beaming in the front row.

Springsteen and his band played a song called “The Promised Land” at the time. “It’s funny that we were playing that song,” Springsteen said. “I think Tim had a real belief in that promised land and in the American idea. And that was the passion that you heard behind all those tough questions on Sunday morning and — and in that big smile.”

Springsteen closed the memorial service with an acoustic version of “Thunder Road.”

Earlier in the day, the presumptive presidential nominees, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, sat next to each other during the private funeral Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and New York Gov. David A. Paterson also attended.

The afternoon memorial service was no less star-studded. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N. Y., made her first public appearance here since suspending her presidential campaign 11 days earlier. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, accompanied her.

But all the while, the focus was on the stage, and especially on Luke Russert, who eulogized his father with a mix of humor and honor that would have done his father proud.

“I ask you, this Sunday, in your hearts and in your mind, to imagine a ‘Meet the Press’ special edition, live from inside St. Peter’s gate,” Luke said. “Maybe Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr will be on for the full hour debating.”

Calling his father “a force of nature,” he added: “Now his own cycle in nature is complete. But his spirit lives on in everybody who loves their country, loves their family, loves their faith and loves those Buffalo Bills.

“I love you, Dad. And, in his words, let us all ‘go get ’em!’ ”

 

From June 19, 2008

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