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Tim Russert collects poignant `Wisdom'


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WASHINGTON - "He worked hard to support us: 12-hour shifts with 13 days on and only one day off, because overtime paid the bills."

Beth Hackett saw her father less often than she wanted when she was a child. Despite his schedule, they had a routine that helped:

"He would get up at 4 a.m., start the coffee brewing and get ready for work. When the pot was ready, he would come into my room and wake me up. I would sit at the kitchen table as he poured two cups of coffee. His was always black. Mine was barely brown, full of milk and sugar, sweet to the taste."

Hackett lives in Conesus, N.Y. Her father died in 1995. Every morning, though, when she has that cup of java, "it's always special. I'm having coffee with my dad."

Her reminiscence is one of a few hundred included in Tim Russert's "Wisdom of Our Fathers," which was published May 23.

Russert, moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," never intended to write this book. But after his book on his own dad, "Big Russ & Me," was published in 2004, he started getting letters and e-mails from people who wanted to share their fathers' life lessons. They just kept coming - 60,000 of them.

"I read them all," Russert said in a recent interview at the recent BookExpo America, where he was promoting the new book. "It took me about a year."

Somewhere in that year, he became convinced he had to share those responses. The letters were so emotionally compelling, including Hackett's.

"That letter resonated with me in such a powerful way because it was a special time that her dad carved out for her. Four o'clock in the morning, he'd wake her up, they'd come down to the kitchen table, and they'd sit there and have their coffee. Then he'd take her upstairs, tuck her in bed, kiss her and go off to work. And then her dad died. And now every day she gets up and makes coffee and sits there alone ... but her conversation with her dad continues.

"That to me is the essence of `Wisdom of Our Fathers.' These letters and e-mails I received from 60,000 people across the country, daughters and sons - they all talk about a small moment. Not a big expensive vacation or a new sparkling ring or a new TV set, but these little moments that bonded them forever."

Many of the stories are inspiring. In one, a father's gentleness actually enables a daughter to stop stuttering. No speech therapy, no professional intervention, just Dad's constant reassurance. Other tales are funny, including one from a woman whose dad was so tolerant that he let his daughters practice putting makeup on him; they also painted his toenails.

In all these recollections, there comes a moment that pierces the heart. Jon Hermanson of Knoxville, Tenn., writes of his father, "Hermie," a postal worker who had suffered a childhood accident that had claimed the ring and pinkie fingers of his left hand.

Mr. Hermanson "refused to consider this a handicap," his son writes. He taught Jon how to hit a baseball, fixed whatever was broken in the house and pursued a hobby as a woodworker, making some of the family's furniture. He wasn't the most vocal of men; he stated his love for his family with those damaged but capable hands. As Jon's mother recalled, "Your dad never said he loved me, but he would always make me something, so I knew he did."

Russert says the hardest task in writing "Wisdom of Our Fathers" was "to make it one volume." The second hardest was probably organizing the book. As he read all those stories, he started organizing them into themes. In the finished book, those themes include honor, forgiveness, tolerance, discipline and loss.

He does hope they provide a learning experience. Generally he thinks the institution of parenting is stronger than some people might think. Yet it does bother him to see "fathers running away from their responsibilities."

He wants would-be parents to know that if they decide to have a child, "it's something that takes over your life." He and his wife, Maureen Orth, have a son, Luke, who just finished his sophomore year at Boston College.

"I have not had a worry-free day since the night my son was born. It's all you do: Worry about their sickness, about their sniffles - and then they start driving cars. They're not little inflatable creatures that you can put in the closet when things go bad.

"When I wrote `Big Russ," after I re-read it, I realized I wrote it for my son as much as for my dad, because I wanted him to understand how I perceived my own dad's sacrifice."

"Big Russ" was Tim Sr., a World War II veteran who worked two jobs to support the Russert family and also dispensed "lasting lessons of preparation, accountability and discipline" that Tim Jr. has passed on to Luke, while becoming such good friends with him that "when he went off to college, it was a very hard time for me because he had become my wingman; we did everything together.

"Children take the measure of their parents. They see them interact with one another, they see them respond to a crisis, they see them offer a gentle hand, a kind word, tough love. What will your children say about you? Will they feel about you the way you feel about your dad?"

Russert hasn't thought much about whether he'll write another book; he has his hands full with "Meet the Press," to which he is committed until at least 2012.

"I'm passionate about it. I've been asked to do a lot of other things in television, but there's nothing else I'd rather do. I have one hour where I can have people with different views have a serious discussion, which is respectful. No yelling and screaming; they can save that for other outlets. I think the clicker is the greatest weapon known to TV viewers. When people start yelling and screaming, turn it off."

Given the response to his role as an author, though, one suspects "Wisdom" won't be his last book.

"I love interviewing presidents and senators and governors and covering campaigns, but the response I've gotten to my book ... there's not a day that goes by that I don't get a letter or e-mail or phone call or handshake saying, `Thank you for writing your book; let me tell you about my dad.'"

While it still gratifies him, such outpourings about fathers no longer surprise Russert.

"It's the greatest honor I've ever had. The best name I've ever had is `Dad.'"

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(John Mark Eberhart is The Kansas City Star's book editor.)

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(c) 2006, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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