Tim Russert: Sharing Buffalo with America - Part I

by Tim O’SHEI

(Originally Published July 1999)

Walter Cronkite gazed into the camera knowing his words were about to change the mood of America. When he removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and announced the assassination of John Kennedy the country seemed to slam on its brakes: The joy ride was over; JFK was dead.

Everything seemingly stopped on that November 1963 evening—but one light was just beginning to glow. A seventh grader outside Buffalo, New York who had recently been entrusted with a powerful position—the editorship of his Catholic school newspaper—was about to discover the power of words.

“As we think of the death of our dear President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, we are deeply saddened,” wrote 13 year-old Timothy Russert in the Bonette, the school newspaper of St. Bonaventure school in West Seneca. “It is comforting to remember that, although John Fitzgerald Kennedy has lost his short life on earth, he has begun a new and glorious eternal life.”

Tim in first grade at Holy Family School, 1955.

Tim sharing Santa with his sister Betty Ann.

Tim’s teacher—and the lady whom he credits for sparking his interest in journalism—was Sister Mary Lucille: “I remember the day President Kennedy was shot,” she said. “Usually, when we would line up the kids in the gymnasium for dismissal it would be a like a zoo. That day, you could have heard a pin drop. And I remember Tim. He was just devastated.”

With Sister Mary Lucille’s blessing, Tim sent that special edition of the Bonette to various people of power in Washington, D.C. Soon he received reply letters from Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and President Johnson.

“For me, at that time, it was extraordinary to have a sense that a publication that we were involved with could have that kind of reach and elicit that kind of response,” Tim said. “It all started with the Bonette in seventh grade in 1963. That’s what began my journalistic career.”

It was the beginning of a career that would make Tim famous, bring pride to Buffalo and grant him the ability to nudge popular views within the world’s most powerful nation. Today, as moderator of NBC’s Sunday morning current events show, Meet the Press, Tim can relate to the broadcast power held by Cronkite. To know that your words—the tone of questions, the timing of interjections—can color the opinions of millions is powerful. It’s a dynamic that can be honorable in the hands of somebody strong and dangerous with someone who’s not. It’s a responsibility that requires the discipline and strength—the nerves and guts—that Tim developed from growing up in Buffalo.

Tim's "best shot" as a Canisius High School freshman.

From Tim's Canisius High School yearbook.

SOUTH BUFFALO BEGINNINGS

The only boy in a family of four children, Tim was the son of a blue-collar war veteran. Tim’s Dad had left school in the tenth grade to voluntarily enlist in World War II. He returned to Buffalo after the war and worked two jobs—as a Buffalo News truck driver and sanitation department foreman—for 37 years. The Russerts lived on Woodside Avenue in South Buffalo when young Tim began grammar school at Holy Family. Each day he’d walk a mile to school in the morning, trek back home for lunch then return to class. At age 5, Tim was walking four miles to school each day. “There were occasional snowstorms in Buffalo, as you might expect,” he said. “That adversity was never seen as overwhelming. It was ‘We’re going to school. Yes, it’s snowing; isn’t this fun?’”

As Tim’s walk in life has taken him through college, law school, politics and journalism those early travels have become a valuable source of resiliency.

“You incorporate it into your life, into a way of thinking,” he said. “If you come to encounter other obstacles in life, I always think, ‘This is nothing compared to walking against the wind at age six in a snowstorm in South Buffalo.’ Everything else flows pretty easily from that.”

The Russerts moved to Kirkwood Drive on the West Seneca—South Buffalo border when Tim was in his final years of grammar school. At St. Bonaventure Sister Mary Lucille, from the Sisters of Mercy convent, gave Tim his journalistic start by naming him editor of that school paper. “Tim was a bright boy, but he didn’t show off about it,” Sister Mary Lucille said. “He wasn’t what you would call a nerd. He was interested in sports—he loved basketball—and Tim was also interested in politics. That’s evident nowadays but usually kids aren’t interested in politics at that age.”

Knowing he was something special—one of those students an educator is fortunate to teach once in a career—Sister Mary Lucille pushed him even further by demanding that he apply to the area’s elite Jesuit school. “She insisted that I take the entrance exam for Canisius High School,” Tim said.

Gaining admission to Canisius was a feat: Out of 1,000 applicants, around 200 would be accepted. Tim was one of them, but for his family the $250 tuition was, in his words, “a small fortune.” He earned it by working at St. Michael’s Rectory on Washington Street every afternoon from 3 to 7 p.m. “I’d answer the switchboard, light the candles, empty out the poor box, greet the homeless when they’d come in off the street,” he said. “I was paid 70 cents an hour. It was such an education in real life.” Tim knew that if he graduated from Canisius he would be the first Russert to go to college. The school was a melting pot, with Tim mixing among the sons of doctors, lawyers and politicians. There, they were all groomed as Canisius gentlemen; they learned how to act like one from a priest named Father John Sturm, S.J. “Tim did a marvelous job working at the door for us,” Father Sturm said. “He could really talk to people and sympathize with them.”

Tim and his mentor Father John Sturm at Canisius High School.

Tim and his mentor Sister Mary Lucille at St. Bonaventure School.

Both then and now, Tim knows that’s an ultimate compliment from a man who demands only the best. “He was the prefect of discipline,” Tim said. “With just one look he could seriously alter my behavior—or else. It was behavior modification to the “nth” degree. And if you didn’t respond he would use any necessary means to bring you into line. It worked. It worked in a very strong way.”

For a story that aired recently on NBC’s Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, Tim traveled back to Buffalo to interview three of the main characters from the story of his youth: his father, Sister Mary Lucille and Father Sturm. “If you’re not a disciplined kind of person,” Father Sturm told Tim, “you’re liable to give in and give up, so that you’re going to lose out.”

Tim Russert never gave in or gave up. During his four years of college at Cleveland’s John Carroll University (a Jesuit school), he worked summers in Buffalo as a garbage man, pizza cook, newspaper truck hopper and taxi driver. Wanting to pay off his student loans following graduation, Tim became a substitute teacher at Riverside High School then worked as an assistant to Buffalo’s city comptroller.

That City Hall experience made Tim realize that in order to pursue a career in government he should go to law school. “I would constantly meet people involved in government and public life,” he said. “Those who were lawyers seemed to have a lot more flexibility in what they could do; a lot more options in their life.” In 1973 Tim enrolled at Cleveland Marshall Law School. From there he embarked on a career that would take him through the offices of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Governor Mario Cuomo and finally to NBC News.

Success took Tim from Buffalo, but Western New York’s values never left him: “I knew I had a real chance to go to college and do anything I wanted to do if I was willing to do the work and prepare myself.”

Even today, as a busy broadcaster and a sought-after speaker, Tim Russert’s top priority is still family. He tries to come home each evening to his wife and son, to attend church every weekend and to see almost all of Luke’s baseball games. Next month: Read about how these same Buffalo values have helped Tim perform what he calls the “ultimate public service”: Questioning and extracting the truth from world leaders.

Tim O’Shei is a freelance writer.

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