I grew up south of Buffalo but went to high school in South Buffalo for three years. So, for nearly every school afternoon I'd wait for the NFT Bus right in front of Holy Family Church -- the parish where Timmy Russert with his family attended Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation; where he probably attended Mass frequently during the week. You did that in Catholic schools then. South Buffalo, including the First Ward, was predominantly Catholic and Irish, though there were more than a few Italians and Poles if you looked hard enough. Farther in toward the city, were Black neighborhoods. The Catholic High School I attended, Bishop Timon on McKinley Parkway, had only one African-American student to my recollection. The houses were wood frame or brick. Solid. Not huge but with lots of rooms, particularly bedrooms, to house all the kids. Four kids was probably the average size; seven never surprised anyone.
South Buffalo was where second and third generation immigrant families moved; it was kind of Queens for the Niagara Frontier. Most of the breadwinners worked at low or middle-management jobs in a steel plant or chemical company or for the city, like "Big Russ." The men were not exactly proud of what they did (many came home dirty in the late afternoon if they couldn't shower at work). But they were proud of what they'd accomplished and of what they'd done.
Almost every young boy's last name ended in "y": Bobby, Eddy, Billy, Jimmy, Timmy. And that held even for many grown men.
Holy Family Parish and the others that dotted South Buffalo were a means of identification, "Donny's from, St. Thomas Parish." If you were from Holy Family that meant, "Donny's a good guy, but he's from over around Abbott Road. He's different."
If you were a young boy or teenage boy in South Buffalo, you ran with a gang -- but it was just a gang of friends. Perhaps you were lookin' for a little trouble but not much, nothing that would get you home too late. Kids from South Buffalo were not known for their sophistication. We had a pizzeria with a Spanish name: La Hacienda. But we thought we were cool and that's all that counts, isn't it?
There were strikes at the steel plants about every five or six years, it seemed. Everybody had to pull together. Things could get tight. But the neighborhoods, as far as the kids could tell, were made up of adults you could trust, like the nuns who were always in the classrooms, controlling things even with as many as forty, fifty or more students in a single room. Priests would walk through the neighborhoods. Some would even come and sit on your porch. It was very likely that you had a brother or a cousin who was a priest or another cousin or aunt who was a nun. There was great coherence and continuity. There were countless moral declaratives: You know right from wrong. Be careful of the company you keep. The Truth is always your best friend. And because everybody else heard those same sayings, you believed them.
Timmy Russert came from these streets and alleys and parks and front porches, from these churches and classrooms, ice rinks and corner stores. Of course, looking back, there were tremendous deficits as well. South Buffalo Irish were insulated, which lead to overdoses of chauvinism which ran quickly to overt racism. Confronting those deficiencies was left to the Jesuits at Canisius College in North Buffalo or John Carroll in Cleveland, who in the 60's confronted our "small world" mentalities with the Catholic Church's social teaching and introduced us to philosophy and literature that took our mind away from things too tiny. For really smart guys, like Timmy Russert, you had this firm foundation on which to build a strong, intellectual (though never in a "smart guy" sense) platform to operate from.
If you came from South Buffalo, you were solid, you knew about fidelity in friendships and families. You were pretty transparent; you never tried to hide from who you were. That's why, when Timmy died so suddenly, virtually everyone across America reacted in their hearts as though they'd suddenly lost a close friend. A very valuable friend. Tim Russert never had a TV personality. He was who he was; he was what we saw and heard. He was the people who nurtured him. He loved his South Buffalo home town, his Bills, his wife, his son (who you know spent lots of time with his dad because he has his smile and his twinkling eyes, his laugh, his very alert mind), his wings, his roast beef on "weck" washed down with a bottle of Genesee Beer. And he loved being a Catholic. He wasn't so much proud of it; he just could never leave home without it.
In a democracy, such tellers and seekers of truth are necessary. And we discovered to our sorrow, when we found ourselves without Timmy just last Friday that we became sad and even a bit frightened. Who will tell us the truth as we enter into this crucial election season? Well, perhaps, NBC should send their scouts back to South Buffalo where people are real and where honesty is not something to be admired in others but is something that defines you, is inside of you, in your heart and in your mind.
Tim Russert was not a stranger to us. We knew him -- because he let us in on so much of the fun, the information, the questions. We did know who he was. He didn't do a "show" on Sunday mornings, he did "Russert" on Sunday mornings. He only used television to get into your house. And he was always welcomed, even as he will always be missed. If you're inclined, say a few "Hail Mary's" (or whatever you pray) for Timmy and his family. That's what they're doin' in South Buffalo.