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'Big Russ' recalled as consummate South Buffalo dad Downplayed own status as son's fame grew

The stories abound. Tales of honesty and humility. Anecdotes of a blue-collar father who preached hard work and discipline and the importance of putting family and faith above all else.

Timothy J. Russert was, as one of his oldest friends suggests, the consummate South Buffalo dad.

"He was an aggregate of all the great attributes you want in a father," Dr. Michael Hanzly said. "Hard working. Honest. No hidden agenda. Never put on airs."

And because of a famous son and best-selling book, Hanzly isn't the only one who knows about the rock-solid Irish Catholic who died Thursday at age 85 in Fox Run at Orchard Park.

Tim Russert, the late host of "Meet the Press," introduced his father to the world in "Big Russ and Me," a warm and rich account of a father and son who seemed to typify everything that is right and good about family.

"No one was closer than Tim and Timmy," said Don Huber, a close friend for nearly 50 years. "He loved his son, no question about it. And his son loved him."

The book would catapult the elder Russert to fame, half of a relationship that resonated with fathers and sons everywhere.

And yet, he never boasted about his newfound status. If anything, he downplayed it. And that was part of the genuine charm and goodness he seemed to exude.

"He never bragged about it," said Patrick Roche, a longtime friend and president of the Blackthorn Club in South Buffalo. "He was a very humble guy, and the last thing he expected was to become the father of a famous person."

Even now, friends love telling the story of how the son, finally on the road to success, offered to buy his father a new car for his 75th birthday.

Maybe a Mercedes, Cadillac or even a Lexus, the son thought. But his father opted for a Crown Victoria, a "cop car," as his son described it in "Big Russ and Me."

In the book, Russert describes the scene at Jack Adkins Ford on Abbott Road as the salesman showed off the newly polished black car:

"Isn't she beautiful?" Big Russ 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."

The elder Russert, a proud Army Air Forces veteran of World War II and an avid Buffalo Bills and New York Yankees fan, never was the type to brag about his daughters or son.

When friends would ask about Tim, the elder Russert would usually say, "He's doing all right."

"One of the greatest guys around," Huber said of his old buddy. "He never bragged about anything he did. He just did it and did it right."

One of the things he did right was play adviser to his son, a sort of one-man focus group as one friend described him.

In his book, Russert recalls his first appearance on "Meet the Press" in 1990 and how his father gave him the best possible 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."

Timothy Joseph Russert graduated from South Park High School. He worked for the City of Buffalo as a foreman in the Street Sanitation Department and was a truck driver for The Buffalo Evening News.

He was a past commander of Post 721, American Legion, and a member of the Blackthorn Club, a social club for Irish-American men.

He and his wife of 30 years, the former Elizabeth Seeley, were the parents of four children. She died in 2005.

Survivors include three daughters, Elizabeth Buckenroth, Kathleen Russert-Hughes and Patricia Scozzaro.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Monday in Our Lady of Scared Heart Catholic Church, 3148 Abbott Road, Town of Hamburg.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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