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Tim Russert: A South Buffalonian's Perspective


I've never met Tim Russert, but I--like many others--feel that I know him intimately.

However, unlike the TV-watching masses that knew Tim only as a talking-head, ours was a relationship of shared origins. That's because we hail from the same hometown of South Buffalo, NY. Notice I didn't say, "Buffalo, NY." Like Tim, I was indoctrinated from a very young age to recognize that the South part of the city is a very unique place. And that sense of individuality involves a lot more than just chicken wings and Claddaugh rings.

Our proudly Irish-Catholic, working-class community gives new meaning to the phrase "tight-knit": honor, love, and respect between generations is almost indelible, and somehow SB, as we sometimes call it, even makes the cliché "steeped in history and tradition" a little less tired. Hillary's "it takes a village" mantra comes in handy when describing our home.

After hearing and reading countless eulogies, we're all by now familiar with Tim's South Buffalo-specific pedigree: he went to high school in the neighborhood, college not far away, and then shot up the ladder of success outside the city, first in politics, and then, most famously, in media. With a rise like that, I imagine it would've been tempting to forget where he came from. But literally to the day he died, Tim was an ardent supporter of (South) Buffalo. He was devoted to the area sports teams, lobbying for the Buffalo Bills to stay in Buffalo and institute a revenue-sharing policy. He was still affiliated with his father's legion post, and was also a strong supporter of the Catholic Diocese and Buffalo schools. He gave money. He showed up, time and time again, delivering commencement addresses, cutting ribbons, giving speeches. In an area where many people don't leave the block they grew up on.

Tim did, in a big way, but kept coming back.

It's no wonder why. In South Buffalo, when just one person gets sick or injured or otherwise is unable to work, pay the bills, or take care of his or her family, someone throws together a benefit at the Irish Center on Abbott Road, and the entire neighborhood comes out to donate a few dollars (which truly may be the only extra few dollars any given person has that week)...and drink a few Labbatt Blues, too, of course.

The same holds true when someone is getting married: the whole of South Buffalo is involved from beginning to end. A bachelor party in South Buffalo (otherwise known as a "stag") most certainly does not include champagne, hookers, or any other unsavory elements. Instead, grandpas, dads, brothers, and friends (most of whom are not related to the groom) come together for a night of card playing, gambling, beer drinking, and back-slapping. The soon-to-be-husband gets to take home half of the evening's gambling proceeds, a relatively large bounty, which traditionally pays for the honeymoon. When I heard Luke Russert's moving homage to his dad on the Today Show, I couldn't help but think about what it's going to be like for him when he gets married--his dad won't be there, but Luke will certainly be surrounded by South Buffalo's finest, other men in the community who care just as much about him as Tim did.

All of this leads me to how South Buffalo reacts to death. I happened to be home last weekend for a wedding on the day Tim passed away, and just like when something happier comes to pass, when one of South Buffalo's own leaves this earth, it's as if everyone's lost a grandpa, dad, brother, husband, and friend. It hits the community that hard.

True to form, Tim's death was discussed, mulled, and cried about among young and old, over beer and whiskey and the traditional Friday fish fries.

The devastation I saw first-hand surprised even me. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised, because Tim most strongly represented hope, possibility, and pride to the average residents of our hard-scrabble city. Qualities that sometimes are hard to come by in a former industrial powerhouse in decline and disrepair, not to mention a place with a propensity for burying its residents in mountains of snow from November through March. Let's face it, between the weather, Scott Norwood, and the crumbling behemoth of Bethlehem Steel, Buffalo gets a bit of a bad rap.

But Tim Russert was a living refutation of those negative stereotypes. Right before his third year of law school, my brother-in-law Jason, also a South Buffalo native read his book Big Russ and Me. He was moved enough to email Tim, lauding him for such an amazing book with a poignant reflection on growing up in South Buffalo and the hard-working heroes of the WWII generation, about people that went to war, worked two and three jobs, and raised a wonderful family, without any complaint. People like Tim's father, Big Russ, and Jason's grandfather, and my grandfather. Jason told him how much he appreciated his continuous devotion to South Buffalo. Tim responded to Jay immediately, congratulating him for his own accomplishments and wishing him well on his future endeavors. He also said to say hi to Jason's grandfather and to feel free to contact him if he was ever in D.C. or needed a reference.

As for Tim and me, there are some parallels. I would hardly equate my publishing a few books and articles to Tim Russert's status as South Buffalo's favorite son, but one thing his tireless support of SB instilled in me was the need to do the same, so I try to always give back to my community. I also always go home to give speeches, donate money (er, when I have it!), and helping out on all the hometown causes I can and taking one for the team (as in the case of my first grade teacher who wrote down her address and coerced me into sending her a free copy of my latest book.). Even without Tim Russert's example, the strong roots South Buffalo gave me have so far allowed me to branch out fruitfully into the world. But regardless of how "successful" I am, I've never forgotten where I came from, and I never will.

And as someone who never forgot where she came from, the best tribute I can pay to Tim Russert is that he will be remembered as the embodiment of everything that's remarkable about South Buffalo: hard work, loyalty, humility, community, and a sense of humor.