South Buffalo Roots

I grew up in South Buffalo, the same neighborhood where Tim Russert lived, except that I was several years older than he, so we never really crossed paths.  I know, however, how and why he thinks and feels as he does, and why he became the influential person that he was.

Tim Russert was born in 1950.  His father was a sanitation worker who had a second job as well, in order to provide for his three daughters and one son.  Tim went to St. Bonaventure Grammar School, taught by the Sisters of Mercy.  I went to St. Thomas Aquinas Grammar School, not too many blocks away, and was also taught by the Sisters of Mercy.


Tim RussertCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                            Tim Russert - Wikimedia

I know his former teacher Sister Lucille.  I know her well.  She taught Tim in 1963 in seventh grade at St. Bonaventure.  She remembers him as the most outstanding student she had ever taught.  In order to channel his energy, she created a school newspaper and made Tim the editor.  Tim has said that particular job changed his life.  Sister Lucille and Tim were the closest of friends until the day he died.

Tim’s Education

When Tim graduated from the eighth grade, his father sent him to Canisius High School in downtown Buffalo; it was taught by Jesuit priests and was the best education available to young men at the time, and still is.  It was expensive for Tim’s father, I am sure, but he knew that his son deserved the best.  From Canisius, Tim went on to John Carroll University in Ohio, another Jesuit school.  He then completed his education by graduating from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland.

Tim’s Professional Life

After completing his legal studies, Tim worked for Senator Daniel Moynihan for five years, then as a counselor to Governor Mario Cuomo of New York until he was hired in 1984 by NBC in its Washington bureau.  Four short years later, he became the Bureau Chief and took over as anchor of the Sunday morning show “Meet the Press” in 1991.  After sixteen years, he was the longest-serving moderator of that show.

As the Washington Bureau Chief, Tim covered all of the presidential elections that occurred during his tenure.  The Washington Post credited Tim Russert with coining the terms “red state” and “blue state” when referring to the differences between Republican and Democratic states.  Tim claimed that the references had been used before; he was not the originator.


Tim Russert HighwayCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                              Tim Russert Highway - Buffalo, New York                                                                                                                              Wikimedia

Tim’s Personal Life

Tim Russert married journalist Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, in 1983. Their son, Luke, graduated from Boston College in 2008.  As a graduation gift for Luke, Tim took Maureen and Luke for a family vacation in Rome.  Tim had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI during that trip to Italy.  Tim had to leave the trip early to prepare for his Sunday television show.  Maureen and Luke remained in Italy.  That year, Time Magazine had named Tim one of the world's 100 most influential people.

At 1:30 p.m. on June 13, 2008, back in his office at the Washington Bureau of NBC News, Tim collapsed from a massive heart attack.  He was transported to Sibley Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead.  Tim was just 58 years old at the time of his death.  A highway on the outskirts of Buffalo has been named the Timothy J. Russert Highway.

Tim loved his South Buffalo roots.  He loved the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres.  After each show on Sunday morning, he would say “Go Bills.”  The Bills team watched him every Sunday as inspiration for their games.


Tim Russert MemorialCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                               Tim Russert Memorial                                                                                                                                               Wikimedia

Tim’s Autobiography

In 2004, Tim Russert finally wrote an autobiography of sorts which he had been planning for some time.  It was entitled “Big Russ and Me,” a tribute to his hard-working father who helped to put him through school.  He spoke in his book about growing up in South Buffalo, an enclave of Irish Americans who were raised with a philosophy of integrity, hard work, education, and faith.  I know all this because I have the same heritage and can fully understand how a person from that unique area could well become a man of national prominence. 

Tim received over 60,000 letters from readers who understood his close relationship with his father, and related their own stories to him.  The next year, he published a second book entitled “Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons,” which contained a collection of many of the letters he had received.  It became a best-seller, as did “Big Russ and Me.”  Sadly, Big Russ died on October 25, 2009 when he was 85 years old. 


All the Old Familiar PlacesCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                          Memories of South Buffalo

The South Buffalo Connection

It is difficult to explain the unique character of South Buffalo and the people who grew up there during the years when Tim Russert and I were around.  A book entitled “All the Old Familiar Places - Memories of South Buffalo” gives an interesting portrayal of that time through letters received from residents of that neighborhood in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

Much of the young people’s time was spent at Cazenovia Park.  In the winter, a small lake in the center of the park was turned into a skating pond.  Everyone was welcome, and there was no charge to skate.  Our boots and shoes were left unguarded under the benches in the casino, as it was called, and no one was ever accused of stealing another’s boots or shoes.

Semi-pro baseball games were conducted in the park in the summer, always free of charge.  A swimming pool, a diving pool, and a baby pool were available also.

A favorite form of entertainment was attending the movies at Shea’s Seneca Theatre on Saturdays.  I seem to recall that the price was ten cents for those who were 14 and under.  Many teenagers over 14 would stoop down low to get in for ten cents and were never stopped.  Two movies would be shown, sometimes a Flash Gordon film, and then the News.  A candy bar cost five cents; frozen Milky Ways or Good ‘n Plenty were the favorites.


Crystal Beach BoatCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                        Crystal Beach Boat - Wikimedia

Parents took their children each summer to Crystal Beach in Canada which was an amusement park.  Buffalonians could catch the Crystal Beach boat at the foot of Main Street in Buffalo which took them across Lake Erie to the Beach.  Although the Beach no longer exists as such, Buffalo residents are still able to purchase the famous Crystal Beach suckers and Loganberry drink which were part of the culture of that day.

The Sisters of Mercy held sway over at least seven Catholic grammar schools in the areas, and were responsible for the strict upbringing of all the Irish-American children in that area.  When referring to where a person lived, one would say “He’s from St. Teresa’s,” or “She’s from Holy Family,” or “They live in St. Martin’s.”  That is the way it was.

Of course, we had an ice cream parlor where all the young people gathered.  It was called “Sullivan’s”, or more often “Sully’s” and the owner, Mr. Sullivan sold huge hot fudge sundaes for fifteen cents.  He did not mind giving away huge sundaes because the Fro-Joy Ice Cream Company gave him a car every year for selling the most Fro-Joy Ice Cream.

These stories may give you some flavor of what it was like to grow up and become a person like Tim Russert.  I understand him perfectly, knowing where he came from.  There are many other people from South Buffalo who have made a mark also.  They are all a product of the same upbringing.  



Big Russ and Me, Father and Son: Lessons of Life
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