My dad and I share the same name, and when I was very young, he was know as Tim and I was Timmy. When I was around 10, people called us Big Tim and Little Tim. In high school, when I shout up to 6 foot 2 and no longer qualified as “Little” Tim, I started referring to Dad as Big Russ, as in “There’ll be hell to pay when Big Russ finds out about this,” and I’ve thought of him as Big Russ ever since. Not long ago, I overheard my son, Luke, referring to me as “the Big Guy,” as in “It sounds OK, but I have to check with the Big Guy.”
Although Dad and I have always been close, our relationship has never been marked by open displays of affection. But that chaged a few years ago when NBC organized a series called “Going Home,” in which the network’s news anchors and the hosts of its major news programs returned to the communities where they grew up and talked about the values and the cultures that shaped their lives.
On Jan. 1, 1997, I traveled to the American Legion Post 721 in South Buffalo, NY, where Dad had once been the commander. Every New Year’s Day, the Legion hosts an open house for its members and their families, and I asked Dad what time I should arrive with the NBC news crew. He said we should come at noon. I asked him what time the festivities started. He said they ran from 1 to 4 p.m.
“Then why should we be there at noon?” I asked.
“Because the food and the drinks are free.”
At the Legion Hall, we pushed some tables together and sat with Dad and his buddies. Dad looked into the camera and talked about the men like himself who returned home after World War II. “They wanted community,” he said. “They wanted a home. They wanted a good reputation with their kids. What’s the old saying? ‘your nose to the grindstone and hope for the best.’”
That expression — it’s actually two expressions squeezed together — captures the essence of Dad: endlessly hardworking and eternally optimistic.
The next day, I went down to city hall to visit with Anthony Masiello. Tony’s dad, Danny Masiello, used to work on the garbage trucks with my dad. They would dream about their sons having a better life, and I guess their dreams came true. Today, one is the moderator of “Meet the Press,” and the other is the mayor of Buffalo.
We concluded the piece for the “NBC Nightly News” by walking down the sidewalk in my old neighborhood. As we walked along side by side, I spotaneously put my hand around Dad’s shoulder. In closing, I said, “They shaped our destiny. We stand on their shoulders. Tim Russert, NBC News, Buffalo, New York.”
When the piece aired two weeks later, I was deluged with letters and calls from around the country. People wanted to talk about their dads, and to thank me for men who wished they’d had a chance from men who wished they’d had a chance to share their thoughts and feelings with their fathers while they were still alive. And I realized that my relationship with Big Russ had changed forever.