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Lessons From Big Russ - As I get older, my dad gets smarter.


One night in 1984, when I had just begun working at NBC News, I called my dad, Tim Russert, Sr. -- he's known as Big Russ. As usual, we talked about what was going on with my job.

I always asked Dad's advice about work, even though his work and mine were very different. When I was growing up, Dad had two demanding jobs. The main one was with the City of Buffalo sanitation department. He started out as a lifter, the man who picks up the garbage cans and empties them into the truck. He gradually worked his way up to driver and, later, foreman.

He left for work at dawn, and when his shift was done, he'd come home around 5:30, eat a quick supper and then sprawl across the bed for a short nap before heading out for his second job, which was driving a delivery truck at night for the Buffalo Evening News. As hard as he labored, we never heard a single complaint. He considered it a sign of success, and even a blessing, that he was able to hold down two jobs and provide for his family.

I told him about my latest assignment: to help come up with ideas that would boost the "Today" show's audience. A recent broadcast from Moscow had been a big success, so I suggested doing another show from abroad, going behind the walls of the Vatican at Easter time.

"Good idea," said the producer. "And let's get the Pope."

I burst out laughing, but then realized he wasn't joking.

I learned the Pope did not grant exclusive interviews to journalists, but maybe he would agree to a special Mass in his chapel during Holy Week. We could include it as part of our coverage. I actually sat down and sent a letter to the Pope, via the papal nuncio in Washington, asking if he would appear on the "Today" show when we traveled to Rome.

When he heard this, Dad roared with laughter. "You wrote a letter to the Pope? Let me know if you hear back from him."

I told him that I had managed to get an appointment with Joseph Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia and was hoping to enlist his help. Cardinal Krol was of Polish descent and a friend of the Holy Father's; when Pope John Paul II was a cardinal, he visited Cardinal Krol on a trip to the United States.

Dad said, "Maybe you should write that letter in Polish. I have some friends in Cheektowaga" -- a blue-collar suburb of Buffalo -- "who could help you."

We were both laughing. Then he said, "I'm serious. When you talk to people, speak their language. It shows respect."

When I hung up the phone, I thought: Actually, that's a pretty good idea.

At work the next day, I faxed my letter to our Warsaw bureau and asked for it to be translated into Polish. When I went to Philadelphia to see Cardinal Krol, I gave him the letter. "This is written in Polish," he said, surprised. "And it's very good Polish. This is excellent. The Pope loves to receive letters in his native language."

A few weeks later, a couple of us from NBC were invited to fly to the Vatican to discuss our proposed plans for Holy Week. A short time after that, I got word that the Pope had agreed to say a private Mass for broadcast in the Pauline Chapel. I wanted to shout, "Yessss!" but somehow that didn't seem appropriate.

Speak their language, Dad had reminded me. Reach out to them and respect them by speaking their language.

He gave me similar advice when I was asked to be a panelist on "Meet the Press." At the time, the program included a rotating panel of journalists who participated in questioning the guests. My first appearance was Sunday, September 16, 1990.

On Saturday I called Dad: "I'm going to be on 'Meet the Press' tomorrow. Any advice?"

"Pretend you're talking to me," Big Russ said. "Don't get too fancy. Don't talk that Washington talk. Ask questions that my buddies at the legion hall would want to know about." It was good counsel and, as usual, I took it.

A few weeks before Dad's 75th birthday, I called him and announced, "I'm finally in a position to buy you a new car." For his whole life, Big Russ bought only used cars, and when I was a boy, I used to say, "Dad, someday I'm going to buy you a brand-new Cadillac."

I sent him Cadillac, Mercedes and Lexus catalogs. "Look them over," I told him. "You can have any car you want, with any options. It's a birthday present. When I come for Thanksgiving, we'll pick it up."

On Thanksgiving, visiting Dad in Buffalo, I said, "Okay, which one?"

"Let's go for a ride," he said. We got into his Chevy Caprice and drove to Jack Adkins Ford. A tall, thin man with a Buffalo Bills jacket came out to greet us.

"This is Charlie," Dad said. We shook hands. "He gave me a good number on my trade-in. Charlie, show him the car."

We followed Charlie into the showroom. There, all shined up, was a black Crown Victoria. I couldn't believe it. "Dad, it's a cop car!"

"Isn't she beautiful?" he said. He opened the trunk. "You can get three suitcases in there, and two cases of beer."

As we were heading home, I said, "Dad, you could have had whatever you wanted -- a Cadillac, a Mercedes, a Lexus -- but you chose a Crown Vic. Do you really think it's better?"

"No, of course not," he replied. "But if I came home with a fancy Cadillac, do you know what people would say? 'His kid made it, and now he's too big for us.' This is who I am."

I realized then that buying Dad an expensive car wasn't just an expression of my love. It was also, in part, my way of showing off. Even in receiving a gift, Big Russ was gently teaching me another lesson.


From: Reader's Digest - June 2004

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