Editor's Note: On May 7, 1950, Tim Russett, a much respected Irish American journalist was born in Buffalo, New York. Sadly the dedicated political journalist passed away suddenly, while working, in 2008. Below IrishCentral's Founder, Niall O'Dowd remembers the much-admired journalist.
The last time I spoke with Tim Russert, he had called for an update on the Northern Ireland peace process. He was looking for Martin McGuinness' phone number because he heard the Sinn Fein leader was going to be in town around St. Patrick's Day, and he wanted to have him on Meet the Press.
Russert was more than just a proud Irish American. He was a deeply informed, thoughtful one who took his responsibilities as an opinion maker on issues like Northern Ireland very seriously.
His wife Maureen Orth is no less so. She carried out the definitive interview with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams for Vanity Fair just as the peace process was becoming major news in America.
It was typical of their low-key approach a few years back that they slipped into our sister publication Irish America magazine's Top 100 Irish Americans awards at the Plaza Hotel and had to be coaxed up from the back to accept their award.
Russert was also an emotional man. When I interviewed him for a cover story in Irish America a few years back he blinked back tears remembering what the Irish off the Famine ships experienced in their new land, and also the rough road to their American dream his own family had traveled.
I'll remember that interview for a different reason. He held off calls from Colin Powell and Micheal Jordan, part of his following week's show on the progress of African Americans in America, in order to finish the interview which ran over by an hour. His Irish roots were intensely important to him.
His love and respect for his father Big Russ was legendary, as was his affection for his son Luke, who was in Ireland last week celebrating his graduation before joining his mom and dad in Italy on Tim's last trip.
Russert was intensely aware of the Irish family roots, and the fact that he was related to legendary Cork hurler Christy Ring, the Babe Ruth of hurling. Six of his eight great grandparents had come from Ireland, the Gilhooleys and Rings among them. The Russert name came from the Alsace region on the French/German border.
His family had come to Buffalo as many Irish did, working the railroads and the Erie Canal, moving north with the great public works of the time.
He grew up surrounded by the descendants of such men and women. He instanced some of their names, Diapers and Bottles Riordan, Shiny Faced Collins and Fuzzy Coughlin, South Buffalo characters who peopled his childhood skies. They didn't come more Irish working class than Tim Russert.
Like millions of Irish kids his hero was John F. Kennedy. When he was elected it was young Tim's proudest day.
"He was Irish Catholic and one of us. For me it was so important because I now realized we could do anything. There were no more obstacles, no more limits," he told me.
When Kennedy was killed Russert was 13 years old and devastated.
"Sister Mary Lucille came down the hallway sobbing uncontrollably. I will never forget it," he said.
Russert paid his way through college by working as a garbage man in Buffalo. "I was a garbage man and also threw papers off the Buffalo News truck. All my college friends backpacked through Europe but I never did any of that," he said.
Given what he subsequently accomplished, it was an incredible feat to come from such a working class background.
He had his first introduction to politics as a member of the O'Connell political machine in Buffalo. George D. O'Connell was the city comptroller and never missed a wake or failed to extend a helping hand. His Irish machine was the envy of his opponents.
Russert told me he did not hold the fashionable view that machines are bad for politics. "If someone plowed your streets, if someone hired your son for a summer job, if someone came to your father's wake, people remembered it and they should remember it, and it's all very honorable," he said.
Bitten by the political bug Russert signed up for New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan out of college. Here again he became involved in Irish issues.
In 1980 he went on his first trip to Ireland to meet with John Hume. When he landed in Belfast Russert got a rude introduction to life in the North.
"I felt real trepidation. John Hume had sent an associate to pick me up but we were hardly on the road when we were stopped by an army checkpoint," Russert recalled.
"It was such an awakening for an American. I was scrutinized, told to get out of the car, told to open the trunk. I kept saying, 'I'm an American' but they looked at me like I was one of the locals. I guess with this puss it was hardly surprising," he told me laughing.
There are three Americans I know - former Congressmen Bruce Morrison and Joe Kennedy and Tim Russert - who all remember vividly their treatment at checkpoints in Northern Ireland. If there was ever a lasting impact from such incidents, just study the careers of all three men and their subsequent influence on Irish America and American life.
On that same trip Russert went to Dublin from Belfast by bus. "I loved it, just loved it. I had my face pressed against the glass the whole way watching and seeing everything," he said.
"Then in Dublin I met with the prime minister. It was an interesting time."
Subsequently, in 1999, the American Ireland Fund honored Russert at its event on Nantucket Island. President Bill Clinton was along to do the honors.
Tragically it all ended last week for Tim Russert at a much too early age. I asked New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd before I interviewed Russert what she thought of him. Her response?
"He is absolutely the best, he does the most homework. In an era where everybody in the media is a-historical and nobody knows anything, he knows everything. He's very Irish in the sense that he has no pretensions."
Russert blushed deeply when I read that quote to him. It was the measure of the supremely modest man though. May he rest in peace.
* Originally published in 2008.