06/29/2008 09:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mr. Russert's Opus

Several years ago Richard Dreyfus starred in a wonderful movie named Mr. Holland's Opus, a story about a high school music teacher who is forced to retire and focuses on how little he thinks he accomplished in his life. As he cleans out his classroom and begins to leave the school, a huge gathering of students in the auditorium surprises him. The auditorium is filled with many of the students he had taught over the years and he hears over and over again what a big impact he had on their lives. The moral of the story is that our lives touch many others and when we give of ourselves sincerely, the impact can be profound. Unfortunately, most of us are not lucky enough to have an auditorium full of people that will share with us how we have dramatically impacted their lives nor will most of us ever know the impact our lives have had on the world around us.

I thought about this during the past weeks when three deaths affected me. The weeks saw the passing of a dear friend from High School, a past Rabbi from my synagogue, and Tim Russert. All of them died as relatively young men, certainly before they should have. Of course, only Mr. Russert's life and his impact on people received wide acknowledgment. As deaths of friends or loved ones always do, this made me think about my mortality and lack of invincibility. And during this time of loss, I also reflected on what true impact one's life has on others.

I was struck by the nature of the tributes to Mr. Russert. Though his stature in the media and political world was self-evident, the outpouring of grief and emotion about his passing did not simply focus on his professional accomplishments. Rather, one friend after another arose to share stories about how Mr. Russert went out of his way to personally help them or a family member. He knew everyone's child and spouse. He made personal visits to hospitals and held their hands during difficult times. He made phone calls and bought gifts and always remembered big and little occasions. He not only told everyone that they were important to him, he showed it in his daily actions.

With all of his stellar accomplishments, it was these personal touches that made him so special. It was the personal time and emotion that he gave to his friends and family that made everyone need (need, not just want) to let the world know about their friend Tim. When all was said and done, it was not his stature in the media, but rather the way that he treated his friends that became Mr. Russert's Opus. And then there was Luke Russert. Not many 21 year-olds are put on the world's stage at such a personal and emotional time. What better notes for an opus than a child who is eloquent, quietly self-assured, and thoughtful enough to use humor to minimize the pain of others? Not many celebrities are also wonderful parents -- this was a special and instructive case in so many ways.

What can we learn from Mr. Russert's Opus? Most of us will never experience the acknowledgment of the impact that we made in our lives the way Mr. Holland did in the movie or the way that Mr. Russert did, unfortunately after his death. I take home two important lessons:

1) Let people know that they touched and made an impact on your life today because there may not be tomorrow. Give them the opportunity to revel in that knowledge and your message.

2) No matter what else we do with our careers or lives, if we treat others well, with respect, thoughtfulness, compassion, and sincerity; we will leave behind a legacy, even if it is never recognized in toto.

With a very sad time behind us, we should think about what we want our Opus to be.