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The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo couldn't have picked a better guest speaker for its first Celebrate Catholic Schools dinner Thursday evening in the Adam's Mark Hotel.

Featured was one of their most brilliant alumni, Tim Russert, moderator of NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" and the network's Washington, D.C., bureau chief. He told the overflow crowd that he owed it all to his schooling.

"I would not be here tonight if it weren't for my Catholic school education in Western New York," he said.

Russert, who grew up in South Buffalo, attended Holy Family and St. Bonaventure elementary schools and was a 1968 graduate of Canisius High School.

To show his appreciation, he announced the establishment of an annual award in honor of the two teachers who had the greatest influence on him -- Sister Lucille Sicciarelli of the Sisters of Mercy, who established a school newspaper at St. Bonaventure School and made him the editor, and Rev. John Stern, the prefect at Canisius High School, who taught him discipline.

"He molded me and he scolded me, almost every day," Russert said. "He would say, 'Sorry, buster. Mercy is for God. I deliver justice.' "

Russert said the Sister Lucille Sicciarelli-Father John Stern Making a Difference Award would give a deserving Catholic teacher $1,500 -- the equivalent of a month's pay for a starting teacher in the Buffalo Diocese schools.

Russert noted that he was one of several famous graduates of Canisius High School and nearby Nardin Academy in the late 1960s. The others -- television producers Tom Fontana, Tony Yerkovich and Diane English.

He told the gathering of clergy, teachers and parents that the nation's millions of youngsters growing up poor and in single-parent homes need the opportunities that Catholic education could give them.

"You have, no doubt, in the back of your classroom," he said, "a little boy or a little girl who probably talks too much, is a bit of a mischief-maker, who has a smile that's a little cherubic and a little devilish, someone who really needs you to show him or her the way. And because of a teacher who makes a difference, he or she may become the next host of 'Meet the Press.' "

Sister Lucille, who lives in Rhode Island, was instrumental in getting Russert to speak at the dinner. The Board of Catholic Education, getting no response from a letter to NBC, contacted the nun and asked her to write Russert, director of development Larry Carroll said. Russert accepted the invitation within a week.

Sister Lucille remembered Russert as a good pupil. "He was A-No. 1," she said, "but he wasn't always the quietest student."

Talking to reporters before the dinner, Russert commented on several developments of the first weeks of the new Bush administration. He said Bush's early moves have been "like paddling a canoe. You go left. You go right. But you always have to go to the center and protect your base."

Attendance at the dinner was 670, far exceeding original estimates. Additional tables filled a ballroom annex, and Russert's speech was shown on closed-circuit television screens. The event raised more than $100,000.

Three organizations were awarded Bishop's Medals for their work on behalf of Catholic Education. Honored were the BISON (Buffalo Inner-City Scholarship Opportunity Network) Fund, St. Bonaventure University and Lockport's "Move of Faith" group, which consolidated the Lockport Catholic Grammar School and moved it into the former DeSales High School.

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