By now, you’ve heard about the tragic passing of Tim Russert, NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and the moderator of “Meet the Press.”
My partner, Dan Murphy, was a dorm mate of Russert’s in college, and he shared a story you probably haven’t heard elsewhere.
I enjoyed it and I think you will, too.
Talk about a sudden shock — and a dose of stone-cold reality. Not only is Russert’s death as sobering as it gets, but it hits home for me in a most personal way.
Back in 1968-69, the very same Tim Russert was a dorm mate right next door to me in Dolan Hall at John Carroll University, a private Jesuit college in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland. Of course, everyone is a different person during sophomore year of college than they become in later life (thank God), and not surprisingly, Russert was a hard-partying, hard-drinking yet intellectually formidable hotshot from Buffalo, N.Y., the hometown he wrote about so evocatively in his autobiographical book, “Big Russ and Me.”
Even then, he was a fast-talking, all-knowing (just ask him) commentator who loved to hold court in his room and spout off about the political debates raging at the time (remember, this was the era of “Hell No, We Won’t Go” anti-war protests over the Vietnam war). Russert was more bluster than brains back then, but you didn’t want to go toe-to-toe with him after he’d had a couple (dozen) beers in him, that’s for sure.
Early in the school year, he couldn’t wait to pledge the University Club (the “U Clubbers”), well known as the wildest “Animal House” frat on campus, and there were plenty of nights when curfew came and went and young Timmy was nowhere in the vicinity of his room (the school imposed 11 pm curfew on weeknights and 1 am on weekends). I should mention that back in those good old days, Ohio allowed 18-year-olds to drink so-called “3.2 beer,” a vile, watered-down product in which the alcohol content was limited to 3.2 percent — hence the name. It was the the “specialty of the house” on tap at numerous off-campus dives where U Clubbers practically had individually engraved barstools, they spent so much “time on task” there.
In a curious — and fortuitous — wrinkle, my room on the second floor happened to be directly above a concrete apron sheltering the loading dock where food and other supplies were delivered to the dorm. With a little agility, it was possible to shinny up the metal poles holding up the apron, clamber up on top and reach up to my dorm room window. For most of the second semester that year, there was hardly a Friday or Saturday night in the wee hours that I wouldn’t hear a soft tapping on the window and somebody whispering, “Hey Murph. Let me in.”
Either me or “Dangerous” Dave McCann, my roommate, would wake up, check out who was there, and pull open the old-fashioned tilting window to let yet another fellow resident sneak in after hours. Russert wasn’t one of the worst offenders, but it’s not like he never availed himself of Dolan’s “backdoor” entryway, either.
I wish I could say I knew then how far his journalism career would take him, but in the vague, hazy sense you have of a fellow student’s aptitude at age 19, it was evident even then that Russert was going to be “somebody” someday.
Years later, I chatted briefly with him at a fund-raiser in Washington, D.C., where he was speaking. He didn’t actually remember me (I’m guessing), but when I mentioned Dolan Hall, his face turned redder than it usually was and it was apparent he wanted to cut short that little journey down memory lane.
I’m very sorry his career — and his life — was cut so short. It’s a sad day for anyone who admired his success and his passion for politics, and a sobering personal reminder that for all of us, our time on Earth is far from unlimited.
Tim Russert gained the respect of his peers and anyone that appreciates rock-solid reporting and commentary.
He was responsible and respectful, two increasingly rare commodities in today’s world of sound bites and tabloid news.
He will be missed.