In the spring of 2004, I published a book about my father—about the lessons I have learned from him, the ways he has influenced me, and my enormous love and respect for this steady, hardworking, and modest man. Big Russ & Me came out in May, and my publisher sent me on a publicity tour in the hope that people around the country would see the book as an ideal Father’s Day gift. Early in the tour I was in Chicago, where, to my great relief, customers were lining up to buy the book and have me autograph it. What happened next really surprised me.
“Make it out to Big Mike,” somebody told me, which was followed in rapid succession by:
“This is for Big Mario.”
“Please inscribe it to Big Manuel.”
“For Big Irv.”
I had expected that my book would appeal to readers in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, but I didn’t know whether the story of a young man coming of age in a blue-collar Irish-Catholic neighborhood, whose father was a truck driver and sanitation man, would strike a chord with a wider audience. As I soon discovered, there were many Big Russes out there—good, industrious, patriotic men who had a lot in common with my dad, even if they didn’t share his religion or heritage. By writing a book about my father, I was affirming not only his life, but the lives of many other fathers as well.
“You could have been writing about my dad,” people told me. Or, “Your dad was just like mine—a man of few words but a lot of love.”
Or, “Thank you for talking about your dad in such a positive way, because that was my experience too.”
Here and there, somebody would hand me a note and ask me to read it when I had a free moment. Later that day, I would learn a little about that dad: his favorite saying, or the lessons he taught (sometimes by his words but more often by his actions), or the story of how hard he had worked to feed his family and educate his kids. During TV and radio interviews about the book, the hosts would begin by asking me about Big Russ but would soon describe their own dads and how much they meant to them.
I realized early on that the book was resonating far beyond what I had anticipated. Without intending to, I had given many readers an opportunity—an invitation, really—to talk about their fathers. They had listened to my story, and now I was listening to theirs. One other bookstore moment stays with me. I was seated at a table at a Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where book signings are so common that the staff has developed a procedure for moving people along with great efficiency. Somebody opens the book to the title page and hands it to you along with a note, so you’ll know how to spell the name of the person for whom you will inscribe it.
When I read the name of Alfred Tanz, it rang a bell, although I couldn’t quite remember why. Looking up, I saw a small elderly man standing in front of me.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” he asked. “I delivered your son Luke into the world.”
I stood up and hugged him. “Dr. Tanz! I can’t tell you what this means to me!”
“Well, I had to come. Your son was almost ten pounds!”
I hadn’t recognized him without the scrubs, and also because he had seemed like a giant to me then. We hadn’t seen each other since August 22, 1985, the happiest day of my life. Maureen had been going through a long and difficult labor, and at one point I left the hospital for a breath of air. Finding myself in front of a church, I went in and prayed for a healthy baby and a healthy mother. A few hours later, my prayers were answered.
I was overwhelmed to see this man again—especially here, especially now. There I was, celebrating my love for my father, and here was the man who, nineteen years earlier, had welcomed me into that very special club with seven unforgettable words: “Congratulations, Dad. You have a baby boy.” Dr. Tanz was the first person to call me Dad—the best name I have ever been called.
People often say that having a child changes your life, and of course they’re right, but it’s hard to understand what that really means until it happens to you. In my pre-father years, I was driven, a man in a hurry. I was the first member of my family to attend college, and from there I went on to law school. I served as counsel to New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which led, eventually, to a similar position in the governor’s office in Albany, which was followed by an executive job at NBC. Now I was living in Manhattan, enjoying a fast-paced life that revolved around my career. Fatherhood was the farthest thing from my mind. When I saw someone bring an infant on an airplane and stuff all that baby equipment into the overhead bin, I regarded it as an inconvenience. I would look at my watch and think, Come on, let’s get this plane in the air.
But when Luke was born, I suddenly understood the meaning of unconditional love. I knew exactly why my father had worked two full-time jobs for thirty years and why, when I was a boy, my mother had spent her days sitting next to me when I was sick, putting her hand on my forehead to measure my fever and placing warm tea bags on my eyes to soothe the pain. My love for Luke was natural, complete, and instinctive.
Suddenly there were no more spontaneous happy hours after work, no more late-night movies, and you couldn’t have paid me to attend a dinner party. My career became secondary to the blessing of being a father. I liked that—loved it, actually. I wanted to stay home to feed our baby. I wanted to watch him learn to crawl and say his first words. I wanted to coach his baseball and soccer games. I sometimes feel as if I can remember every day of my son’s life.
Of course, there have been some painful moments along the way. Not long ago, when I took Luke to Boston to begin his freshman year of college, I knew as the door to his dorm room closed that a major chapter in his life—and mine too—had just come to an end. He would never again be totally dependent on me. (Actually, that had been true for years, but as long as he lived at home while in high school, I could still pretend otherwise.) Before I drove off, I gave him some simple advice: “Study hard. Laugh often. Keep your honor.” I hope I’ve taught him to make good decisions and that I’ve given him a strong moral foundation to do the right thing. When my life is over, I know that the most important thing I’ll be judged on is what kind of father I was.
I had hoped my book would connect with readers, but I certainly didn’t anticipate how it might affect members of my own family, including the man whose name is in the title. Luke, Maureen, and I always go to Buffalo for Thanksgiving, and in 2004, a few months after the book came out, we were loading up the car to drive to the airport when Big Russ came over to me to say good-bye. For as long as I can remember, Dad and I had always parted with a handshake and a half hug. But this time he gave me a huge bear hug and said softly, “I love you”—something I had never heard him say before. I was fifty-four years old, and all I could think was, Boy, I wish I had written this book thirty years earlier!
Dad needed to know it was all right to express his love to me, and my book had assured him that it was. Now that I had declared my love for him—and in public—something between us changed forever. About a month later, Maureen, Luke, and I went back to Buffalo for Christmas Eve and then on to New York, where we attended midnight mass. When we returned to our apartment, Luke disappeared to take a shower. A few minutes later, I heard Maureen yelling, “My God, what have you done?” She ran into the room, horrified. “He has a tattoo!”
I jumped out of my chair and yelled, “Luke, come in here!” I was really mad. A few months earlier, when he had told me he wanted a tattoo, I brought up the possible health risks and pointed out the irreversibility of a youthful decision that he might someday regret. I had talked him out of it—or so I thought.
But here he was before me, with a towel around his waist and his arms firmly locked down.
“Let me see it.”
“Let me see it!”
“Luke, let me see it!”
He reluctantly raised his left arm, and there were the letters TJR. Those are my initials—and also my dad’s. Luke was misty eyed. “After I read your book,” he said, “I wanted you and Grandpa to always be on my side.”
I collapsed back into the chair—speechless—and then sobbed. Luke came over and wrapped his arms around me. Laughing and crying at the same time, I pledged never to complain about Luke’s tattoo again. I was honored to be on his side... forever.
In November, my dad had reacted to my book by telling me flat out that he loved me. And now, just a month later, in a very different way, so had my son. Of all the things I have done in my professional career, nothing has been more rewarding than writing that book.
Excerpted from “Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons,” by Tim Russert. Copyright © 2006 by Tim Russert. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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