Luke Russert: What I Learned From My Dad
“Dad”—no title or honor in his life carried more significance to my father, Tim Russert. He once told Oprah Winfrey, “When my life is over, there’s nothing more I’ll be judged on than what kind of father I was.” And he was a wonderful one.
He was not only my best friend, but my compass. While he was alive, he guided me with his actions and advice. Since he’s been gone, those “lessons of life,” as he once called them, have continued to give me counsel and comfort. Here are three of them.
“Believe in yourself.”
If there was one phrase my father never liked to hear, it was “I can’t.” His dad—my grandpa—was a garbage man from South Buffalo, N.Y. He never got to finish high school and held down two jobs to provide for his family, but he never complained. Through education and years of hard work, my dad rose from South Buffalo to become the preeminent political journalist of his generation.
When I was a freshman in high school, I had a terrible time with geometry. My dad found me a tutor, but I still struggled. So my teacher suggested I meet with him at 7 each morning before school for extra help. I told my dad, “That’s crazy! I can’t do that!” He replied, “You’re doing it. I’ll bring you.” Every morning at 6:45 a.m., we’d leave the house. Despite working 12-hour days, often with a Today show appearance between 7 and 8 a.m., my dad never once missed driving me to school.
After months of studying, I was facing the final exam. I was so nervous. If I bombed, I was looking at summer school and—worst of all—failure. On the day of the final, my dad took me to school. He got out of the car and walked with me the first 20 yards. Then he hugged me and said, “Luke, believe in yourself. You can do it. Whatever happens, it’ll be okay. I love you, and I know you can do this.” His words made me realize I needed to trust in my ability and in the hours of work I’d put in. I ended up passing, and it’s still one of my proudest achievements. When I got my grade, the first person I called was Dad. He screamed, “Yes! You worked your butt off, buddy! You earned it, and you believed in yourself!”
Even now, whenever I worry that a task is too much for me or have doubts about performing my job as a Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News, I think back to that geometry exam. No matter how hard something is, if you’re willing to work, you can succeed. I’m forever grateful to Dad for that lesson.
“It’s okay to be scared.”
In 2004, my dad and I were on a South Bend, Ind.–to–D.C. flight that hit very bad turbulence. The plane kept lurching, and it seemed to fall hundreds of feet in a few seconds. I was terrified, and I held on to the armrests for what I thought was literally dear life. But Dad, a veteran flier, didn’t flinch. He put his hand on my back, saying it would be okay, and eventually we reached smoother skies. Still, I walked away from that experience with a fear of flying. Even though I dreaded getting on airplanes, I forced myself to travel. But because I wanted to appear tough, I didn’t mention my fear to anybody.
One Sunday night, I was due to fly back to Boston after visiting family and friends in Washington, D.C. The sky looked ominous, and I hoped my flight would be canceled. It wasn’t. Dad drove me to the airport, and he could tell I wasn’t myself. I was curt and furiously tapping the door handle. As we pulled up to the terminal, I really started sweating and I blurted out the truth: I was terrified about flying. He said, “I’m coming in with you.” At the counter, to my astonishment, my dad used his airline miles to get himself a ticket to Boston! I asked, “Don’t you have to be on the Today show in the morning?” He responded, “I do, but I’m going through security and walking you to the plane.” I was mortified—I was 21 and I needed an escort. I told him not to worry. My dad said, “It’s okay to be scared. Let’s talk.” We went through security and had a beer at the airport bar. He told me not to be afraid—that airlines only fly under safe conditions, that pilots are very well trained—and he quoted a statistic about air travel being the safest form of travel. He also said to think of turbulence as “rough waves that hit a boat. It might get choppy, but you know you won’t sink.” When boarding was announced, he said, “I love ya, buddy. Call me when you land,” and I got on the plane. Even though the flight was a bit bumpy, my dad’s boat analogy eased my mind.
I learned that night it’s okay for a man to show fear and vulnerability. My dad could have said, “Suck it up. It’s only an hour-and-a-half flight.” Instead he went out of his way to support my weakness. To this day, I don’t believe in a “no fear” attitude. All of us have fears, and they’re real. But if you can acknowledge them and understand them—you might need help, like I did—you can overcome them. I’m still not crazy about flying, but whenever I step onto a plane, I think of Dad’s image of a boat in the ocean and it brings me tranquility.
“Remember the little things.”
People are always coming up to me with a “Tim Russert story”: about politics, sports, Buffalo, or just a chance encounter. Often, it’s about a thoughtful thing my father did. Dad was a big believer in random acts of kindness. It was not uncommon for me to come back to my room in college and find a FedEx box containing magazines, a Twix bar (my favorite), and a note from him. The packages brightened my day. It wasn’t so much what they contained—it was that my dad, the busiest man I knew, took the time to show he was thinking about me.
When I started at NBC News, a coworker sought me out and told me a story I’ll never forget. He was working for my dad when his own father became seriously ill, and he needed to take days off. Whenever he asked my father’s permission, my dad always said yes. But he did much more. My coworker talked about the many emails and phone calls he got from Dad, just checking up on him and his sick parent. When his father passed away, my dad sent flowers and gave him all the time off he needed. The man said, “I hadn’t even been at NBC for that long, so to know Tim Russert cared that much about me and my family meant the world to me.”
I’ve tried to continue my dad’s caring ways, whether it’s by making a quick phone call, giving an unexpected gift to a friend, or helping someone who’s a few dollars short at the grocery store. Take it from me and my dad—the little things do matter. (This story appeared in Parade Magazine, June 11, 2011.) http://bit.ly/ltParP
Luke Russert, an NBC News correspondent, is following his Dad’s lead on and off the job.
Editor’s Note: This is not a Christian story in our usual form, but it is very much Christian in the love and fellowship expressed by this father to his son. You will find deep meaning and experience a number of emotions as you read this story from Luke about his famous father, Tim Russert.