Remembering Tim Russert

June 13th, 2008

Thirteen lost a friend today.

Tim Russert was a good friend and longtime colleague of mine at NBC News.

I could write so much about my memories of him when we both worked in the news division, but in this space, as we mourn his passing, I wanted to acknowledge that there is so much more to Tim than just being one of the most respected political reporters of our time.

Tim cared about his community…in fact, he cared about many communities.

He spoke at churches and synagogues and universities and community groups.

He cared passionately about education and played a vital role here at Thirteen, as our Vice President of Education, Ron Thorpe remembers:

Very few Americans don’t know Tim Russert, the smart, affable, respectful but no-nonsense host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” In fact, it says a lot about the man that we all think we know him just from our television sets. He had that ring of authenticity.

In March 2007, I not only got to meet Tim Russert, but shook his hand, had my picture taken with him, and actually talked with him for a bit. Amazingly, he was the guy I “knew,” and there was no screen separating us. I wasn’t the only lucky one on that occasion. There were thousands of others, mostly teachers attending our annual education conference, the Celebration of Teaching & Learning. Tim Russert had accepted our invitation to speak at the conference, which wasn’t a surprise since the invitation came from our Board Member and Education Committee Chair, Meredith Brokaw. They were old friends, and I remember smiling when I saw Mr. Russert’s email reply: “How can I say no to the Divine Ms. M!”

We hadn’t really asked Mr. Russert to give a talk at the Celebration. Rather, we invited him to carry on a conversation with five amazing people – the chair of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Karen Cator, Asia Society President Vishakha Desai, IBM executive Nick Donofrio, RPI President, Shirley Ann Jackson, and New York State Education Commissioner Rick Mills. Of course, such an environment was the perfect milieu for Mr. Russert, and his questions swirled through the group, bringing out each distinctive voice and perspective without letting them get away with anything.

But as good as the panel was, what I remember most is what he offered the audience before the panelists came on stage. Alone, pacing from side to side, Tim Russert spoke to the teachers about the teachers who made the difference in his life. He talked specifically about one teacher who, in order to channel the young Russert’s “excess energy”, created a school newspaper and put Russert in charge of everything from writing the articles to collating and delivering the sheets. The message got through to the 2,000 teachers in that room: a teacher had made him who he was.

There was so much humanity and grace in what Mr. Russert shared with that audience, and even more in how he did it. Happily, thanks to digital video, we still have that story, and it’s a much-visited clip on our Web site. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house that March afternoon. Today when I think about that story and the news of Mr. Russert’s death, I’m right there again.

-Ron Thorpe

Watch Tim Russert’s speech at the 2007 Teaching & Learning Celebration here.
The panel discussion is here.