I can hardly remember life before DVR. We almost never watch live television anymore. We race past commercials. (Some of them, I’m told, are pretty good.) If the news story doesn’t strike a chord, we just hit fast forward. For example, the “pain at the pump” headliner at the top of the news is so predictable, so redundant, so, well, painful, we skip that one every time.
On reflection, for so many years now, we’ve stumbled into a routine that makes a guy like Tim Russert feel like a real live friend. I’ve never met him. I wish I had. Before the news hit on Friday, I can recall a sense of both admiration and envy… Russert seemed to “have it all.” I would imagine myself doing the interviews, summarizing complex issues, enjoying the company of smart people, leaders in the mix of political wrangling, high level decision-making. Russert had this ability to draw folks out, ask the tough questions without the mean spirited, self-serving, “gotcha” sort of questioning we’ve come to accept as a way of life in public discourse. But he also seemed so real, so approachable; the kind of guy you’d look forward to seeing in the hallway.
It’s also curious to me that two top guys at the network (Brokaw and Russert) end up writing their best-selling books about fathers. Understand, these guys could pick from a wide array of possibilities. They’ve traveled the world. They know world leaders by name. They’ve reported on the rise and fall of political movements, economic crises, wars and rumors of war, assassinations, bombshell disclosures of indiscretions both public and private; they’ve been there for the great victories and the devastating defeats – and what do they choose to write about? Dads. Think about it.
Brokaw spawns a label for his father’s era – the Greatest Generation. And Russert writes about “Big Russ.” You might assume Russert would be embarrassed. Maybe Brokaw gave him permission to think otherwise. Russert’s dad drove a trash truck. Remember, Russert went to college. Then law school. And then on to the halls of power in the nation’s capital as a top aide to a United States Senator and a presidential candidate. The son of a garbage truck driver.
But he writes a book paying tribute to his father’s role in making him the man he is.
I knew all this before Carolyn called and asked if I’d heard the news. I hadn’t. This morning, it still seems impossible. A vibrant, lively guy, unashamed of his faith, open about his pride in his family, affirming friendship at every turn, a guy at the top of his profession, a guy in whom I relied for insight and perspective in the uniquely American political game, sat down at his desk to prepare for his weekend duties in front of the camera – and in one awful moment in time, felt a sharp pain in his chest. And he died.
And I felt grief.
You might call it excessive. And it probably is. The media stopped what they were doing. They turned to the Russert loss. The sheer number of people this man touched is nothing short of astonishing. And many of these are the people who decide what we watch and hear and read. All the networks and radio and print media tuned in. Everyone wanted to weigh in. Including me. (I left a message on his blog – along with a few thousand others.)
And the tributes are as striking for their personal connection as they are their professional affirmations.
Surprisingly, the whole story, an untimely death two days before Father’s Day, got me thinking in new ways about my own father. Big Ed. That’s what I and my three brothers call him – to this very day. (My three sisters still call him “Daddy.”) He ran a machine shop. When I’d get up for school in the morning, he was gone to work. I didn’t really understand what he did then, except that he loved to fix things. I remember an eight cylinder Oldsmobile engine in pieces in our garage – he pulled it from under the hood and took it apart – the whole thing. Then rebuilt it. Just like he built the photo lab, a dark room out there for us to learn photography. Just like he built model rockets with us, and then he flew them with us out there on a dry desert lake. Just like he put together the camping gear and introduced us to places like Big Sur and King’s Canyon and then drove all night long to show the folks we left back in the mid-West what a great family he had.
He was the plant manager. He ran our family like he ran the shop. When he hired me during the summer to help pay my college bills, I found out how much his crew of nearly fifty loved him. The respected him. They had great affection for him. He was tough, but he laughed often. He had nicknames for all the guys. Like Russert, I had a dad who sacrificed, without complaint. He gave all seven of us a start at this thing called life. He taught us the simple values of a strong work ethic, love for family, commitment to marriage, reverence for God, providing a home, engaging community, showing up at ball games and concerts and graduations; and expressing his pride. He didn’t have to say much. You could just sense it.
Big Ed’s been gone now over ten years. He died too soon. I wish he was here to see the photo I carry around now of Kenny and Wil and Becca and Kate and Noah and Amelia and Emerson. He’d smile. And laugh. And call it all “a handful.” Handful indeed.
Thanks, Dad. Big Ed. Your words stay with me. I can still feel your handshake. I can still see the pride in your eyes.
It’s Monday morning. You’re a leader. You may well be a dad. Or you may be married to one. In a social order that all too often devalues, degrades, demeans and denigrates the role, let’s think otherwise.
And as the media mourns the loss of one of its own, valued not simply for his professional accomplishment (which is considerable) but for his affirmation of bedrock family values rooted in faith and character, and friendship that exudes loyalty and trust and honesty… as the nation considers the life and times of a high profile but humble Dad, let’s contemplate the gift of our own. And honor him,
With words. And heart. And thanks.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008