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Sister Lucille Socciarelli, teacher who steered Tim Russert to journalism, dies at 82

March 30, 1935 – April 9, 2017

Sister Lucille Socciarelli, the teacher who made a lifelong impression on newsman Tim Russert, died Sunday at Mercy Convent in South Buffalo. She was 82.

Russert credited Sister Lucille, his seventh-grade teacher at St. Bonaventure School in West Seneca in 1963, with leading him to a career in journalism by making him the editor of the school paper. Her motive at the time was simply to keep him out of trouble by keeping him busy.

“I was in the back of the class at St. Bonaventure School flicking rubber bands with paper clips, the whole shot, spitballs, the best,” he told an interviewer in 2004. “And she had enough of it. ... It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Russert often invited her to join him at book signings and speaking engagements. She once vacationed with the Russert family on Nantucket Island. Following Russert’s death in 2008, she spoke at his memorial service.

He wrote about her in his book about his father, “Big Russ & Me,” noting that she played baseball with her students and was considered “the coolest teacher we ever had.”

Russert remarked that she was particularly devoted to President John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy family. He wrote that when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited Buffalo in 1967, Sister Lucille ran 150 yards after his car at the airport to get an autograph and was invited to tour his private plane. Russert noted that she became the topic of a newspaper report and was reprimanded.

Russert also established an annual award, the Sister Lucille Socciarelli-Father John Sturm Making a Difference Award, which is given by the Diocese of Buffalo to an outstanding Catholic educator. Sturm was prefect of discipline at Canisius High School when Russert attended.

“Sister Lucille’s vibrance, energy and humor, her love of life, her curiosity and astuteness made her the spark that ignited seventh-grade Tim Russert’s passion for politics and journalism,” Russert’s widow, Maureen Orth, said in an email Sunday.

“When she made him the editor of the St. Bonaventure newspaper and he sent the White House and members of the Kennedy family copies of the school’s commemorative issue about JFK’s death, Tim received personal responses back. That was his awakening, when he got it that news could be powerful and a force for public good,” she wrote. “Besides, Sister was a natural pol herself and probably would be at least a bishop if she had been a man.”

“She also taught during the time that the Mercy order rule was that no teaching nun could ever be caught sitting behind a desk,” Orth added. “They were expected to be on their feet at all times. What incredible commitment and love.”

The Russerts' son, Luke Russert, who followed his father into broadcast journalism, in an email, said:  "Sister Lucille's life was one of love, selflessness and humor. She gave herself to God, the children she taught and the sick she counseled."

"I was happy to be her 'grandson in faith' and can safely say she single-handedly kept Hallmark in business by sending me a card no matter where I lived for every holiday, anniversary or special occasion. I'll miss her ever-present kindness, her belief in the goodness of others and her unwavering support for the Buffalo Bills."

Retired NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw, in an email Sunday night, said, “When we lost Tim, Sister Lucille and I picked up the relationship. I heard from her regularly and she was a joy. She offered pithy observations on the news and the Buffalo Bills. When I appeared at Chautauqua two years ago, she drove over and greeted my family like old friends. They were enchanted. Her life of service to her faith and the downtrodden was an inspiration.”

Born in Albion, the daughter of Italian immigrants and the youngest of 13 children, she attended St. Joseph’s Elementary School and graduated from Albion High School. In his book, Russert notes that she had considered becoming a social worker, a hairdresser and a teacher before she entered the Sisters of Mercy at Mount Mercy Convent in Buffalo in 1953.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Niagara University and a master’s degree in education from the University at Buffalo while teaching and serving as principal at Catholic elementary schools and high schools. She also received a degree in religious studies from Boston College.

In the 1980s, she became a director of youth ministry in Florida, then returned to become director of pastoral care at Mercy Hospital. She later was a chaplain at hospitals in Fall River, Mass. She retired and returned to Buffalo in 2015.

Survivors include a brother, Donald, and many nieces, nephews and cousins.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 4 p.m. Tuesday in Mercy Center, 625 Abbott Road.

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