A tribute to Russert

Newsman's wake draws colleagues, fans of 'Press'

June 18, 2008|By Jill Rosen and Matthew Hay Brown | Jill Rosen and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

Washington - Upon hearing of Tim Russert's death, Gianmarc Manzione had no idea what shocked him more - the passing of the seemingly vital journalist or that the news reduced him to tears.

The Tampa, Fla., English professor abruptly ended a road trip with his girlfriend to attend Russert's wake yesterday in Washington. He stood in line with hundreds of viewers similarly, inexplicably moved - people who had never met the host of NBC's Meet the Press but who had watched him, respected him and shared an hour of their lives with him every Sunday morning.

"I needed to make peace," Manzione said. "It was almost an obligation."

The wake, in a stone chapel on the leafy campus of St. Albans School, where Russert's son, Luke, graduated in 2004, also drew the biggest names in television news and journalism. There were his NBC colleagues, Brian Williams, Chris Matthews and Richard Engel, as well as other familiar television faces, including Phil Donohue, George Will and Brit Hume.

NBC ran vans between its Washington bureau and the chapel to shuttle all of Russert's colleagues to the closed-casket ceremony. Many of them had pinned blue ribbons to their lapels - blue in honor of Russert's beloved Buffalo Bills.

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush paid their respects before the chapel doors opened shortly after 2 p.m. for Russert's media peers and his fans.

School officials estimated that about 300 people were moving through the chapel per hour. Assuming that pace held for the seven-hour ceremony, more than 2,000 people were expected to pass through to honor Russert.

Hardball host Matthews, who was reportedly quite competitive with Russert, wiped his eyes as he stepped from the chapel. He attributed the almost shocking turnout to Russert the man, rather than any celebrity he might have garnered in his role as host and political analyst.

"It was him; it's wasn't the position," Matthews said. "There are a lot of moderators for a lot of shows, but no one is here for the moderator of Meet the Press; they're here for Tim Russert."

Russert, who was 58, died Friday after suffering a heart attack at work.

A private funeral and memorial service are set for today.

The line of mourners snaked out several hundred feet from the chapel, through the campus and along Wisconsin Avenue.

To enter the chapel, people passed dozens of wreaths and bouquets, enough to perfume the air. A ribbon attached to one read, "Buffalo Bills Alumni"; another said, "God Bless Luke's Dad." They also walked by a single black-and-white blowup shot of a smiling Russert.

Inside the chapel, the long line divided into two, each passing on opposite sides of the casket. One line was received by Russert's family, the other was not.

Back outside, Ellen Wagner and Lindsay Goldstein, friends who live in Washington, where anyone who follows politics knows Russert's name, said they considered the newsman family. They were among the first in line, meaning they waited in the morning sun for about four hours to pay their respects.

"He came into our homes every week for so long," Wagner said. "I just wanted to say a prayer for him and hope he's at peace."

Jim Garry, a Florida retiree, came to the wake because, like Russert, he grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. He and Russert's father are members of the same American Legion post. "He just seemed like a friend to me," Garry said. "A real, real gentleman."

David and Mary Jo Quinn, who are also from Buffalo, extended their D.C. vacation a day to attend the wake. They admired Russert's working-man roots, his lack of pretension and how, as Mary Jo Quinn says, he was "a Catholic with a capital 'C.' "

The couple would often plan their Sunday Mass so they could be at home when Russert's show came on at 9 a.m.

"He hit the questions you wanted to hear, the questions you were thinking of yourself," David Quinn said. "He made politics very interesting."

Julia Rose brought her guitar from Baltimore to play a song she wrote for Russert, "For Mr. Tim," as she put it. She says watching Russert brought her and her father closer together and drew her into the political process.

"Selfishly, we wish you would linger here longer/Mr. Russert, where you go, our hearts go, too/We will always be inspired by you," Rose sang for mourners waiting in line.

Rose has played the song the past two days at the makeshift memorial for Russert outside WRC-TV in Washington.

"I have to get it out somehow," she says. "It's just a lot of emotion, raw emotion, a lot of love and respect for someone who commanded love and respect."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Online

Buffalo, N.Y., native and Sun editor Norm Gomlak remembers Tim Russert at baltimoresun.com/timrussert

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