Commencement address by Timothy Russert, 2002

Author: Gail Hinchion Mancini

Father Malloy, distinguished honorees, distinguished guests and the Class of 2002. Before all else—congratulations! You finally made it.

Let me be honest with you about my experiences with commencement addresses. I’ve been through several of my own and I’ve sat through dozens of others. And I can’t recall a single word or phrase from any of those informed inspirational and seemingly interminable addresses.

In preparing for today, I had thought about presenting a scholarly treatise on campaign finance reform—but I thought better of it.

I guess I’m like that noted philosopher—Yogi Berra—I get it eventually—after Yogi flunked his exam—his teacher came down the aisle, shook him and said “Don’t you know anything?” Yogi looked up and said, “I don’t even suspect anything.” Yes, this is the same Yogi Berra who, when asked whether he wanted his pizza cut into six slices or eight, replied, “Six. I couldn’t eat eight.”

This is the second most humbling day of my life. The first was in 1985. I was granted an extraordinary opportunity—a private audience with the Holy Father.

I’ll never forget it. The door opened and there was the Pope—dressed in white. He walked solemnly into the room that at the time seemed as large as the Joyce Center. I was there to convince His Holiness it was in his interest to appear on the Today show. But my thoughts soon turned away from Bryant Gumbel’s career and NBC’s rating toward the prospect of salvation. As the Vicar of Christ approached me, you heard this tough, no-nonsense hard-hitting moderator of Meet the Press begin our conversation by saying, “Bless me, Father!” He took my arm and whispered, “you are the one called Timothy from NBC. They tell me you are a very important man.”

Somewhat taken aback, I said, “Your Holiness, with all due respect, there are only two of us in this room, and I am
certainly a distant second.”

He put his hands on my shoulder—looked me in the eye—and said—“Right.”

In that humble spirit may a respectful servant in the laity of the Church I love offer a serious observation. I believe it is imperative when our bishops meet next month in Dallas they work tirelessly to bring about a healing and reconciliation with all those who have been harmed and they adopt specific and enforceable measures that ensure the illegal and immoral abuse of our young will never be tolerated by our Church again.

It’s not often you have a chance to meet and talk with people who share the same background and values.

So let me skip the temptation of lecturing you.

Instead, let me take just a few minutes to have a conversation with you.

Like each of you, my life changed forever on September 11, 2011, at 8:46 a.m.

The English language does not include the words we need to express our sorrow for what happened on that day. Only in our hearts can we give full and complete expression of our grief and the shocking sense of personal loss—and the agony of seeing our nation so violated.

My dad was a truck driver and a sanitation man. He worked two full-time jobs for 37 years—and he never complained—and that was after he helped win WWII. That is the story of his generation. He never graduated from high school—but he taught me more by his example by his hard work—by his basic decency—his intense love of family and country—he indeed taught me the true lessons of life.

And these lessons have sustained me since September 11.

Simply put, there are those who want to destroy us—our people—men, women, our children—our institutions—our way of life—our very freedoms.

For the media, war on terrorism should not be analogous to reporting the Florida recount or a presidential impeachment or a missing intern. When covering military operations, the media should lower our voices and modulate our tone. We may be journalist, but we are also American citizens.

Indeed the press and the government will have serious disagreements over what is fair and timely and relevant news coverage, even how to define “national security.” And good journalism also report and respect the legitimacy of dissent to government policy. But we mnust never report anything that puts our troops at risk and we must always reject any attempt to suggest a moral equivalency between the United States of America and the terrorists.

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—let ever nation know (whether it wishes us well or ill) that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any for to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Those words are as timely today as they were 41 years ago. President Kennedy concluded his address this way: “With history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking this blessing and His help, but knowing here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Understanding that I believe the key to a meaningful life—the essence of our earthly existence. Your Notre Dame Mission Statement describes it in this way: “There is an intelligibility and coherence to all reality, discoverable through spirit, mind and imagination. God’s grace prompts human activity to assist the world in creating justice grounded in love.”

I am the first person in my family to have the chance to go to college. I attended John Carroll University—a Jesuit school where I received a superb education.

And so, too , with you. You chose a school that was different and you made the choice deliberately.
The education you’ve received at Notre Dame isn’t meant to be the same as you could have received at a score of colleges—public and private—across this country.

You’ve been given and education that says it’s not enough to have a skill. Not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts. Values really do matter.

The University of Notre Dame. A catholic university founded by the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

It’s only justification for existing is because it has a special mission—training young men and women to help shape and influence the moral tone and fiber of our nation and our society. And that means you now have a special obligation and responsibility. You have been blessed with extraordinary opportunities—and, St. Luke tells us, “to whom much is given, much indeed is expected.”

Graduating from Notre Dame has given you incredible advantageous over others in your generation.

Yes—I , too, have heard the sometimes smug remarks about non-eastern or Catholic colleges.

You think you’ve had it bad. You should try being a Buffalo Bills fan in Washington! I actually took Meet the Press to the Super Bowl a few years back. At the end of the program, I looked into the camera and said, “It’s now in God’s hands. And God is good. And God is just. Please God, one time. Go Bills!”

My colleague, Tom Brokaw jumped and said, “You Irish Catholics from South Buffalo are shameless! You can’t pray on national television.”

Well, as I moped back from the stadium after the Cowboys slipped by the Bills 38-18, the first person I saw was Brokaw.

He yelled across the room, “Hey Russert, I guess God is a Southern Baptist.”

You have something others would give most anything for!

You believe in something—in your God, in your country, in your school, in your family, in yourself, in your values.
Remember the message our parents and grandparents and teachers repeated and repeated—and instilled in us.
A belief in you worked hard and played fair, things really would turn out all right.

And after working for senators and governors, meeting Popes and interviewing Presidents—I think they are right.
Will Rogers put it this way: “It sure seems funny—the older I get the smarter my mother and father seem to get.”
The values you have been taught, the struggles you have survived, the diploma you are about to receive have prepared
you to compete with anybody, anywhere.

Reject the conventional wisdom that success is only for the very rich or very privilege or Ivy League-educated.
Don’t believe it. I didn’t. Because people with real values have a way of helping and teaching and connecting with one another.

People with backgrounds like yours and mine can and will make a difference.

In Poland, it was a young electrician named Lech Walesa, the son of a carpenter, who transformed a nation from communism to democracy.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, former President Nelson Mandela, a brave black man who worked his way through law
school as a police officer and spent 28 years in jail to make one central point—we are all created equal.

And on September 11, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon it was our brother and sister police, and fire and rescue workers who properly redefined modern day heroism.

All these men and women have one thing in common with you—like the past, the future leaders of this country and this world will not be born ot the blood of kings, but to the blood of immigrants and pioneers.

It is now your turn. You will now have the opportunity to be doctors, nurses, lawyers, bankers, accountants, social workers, soldiers, journalists, entrepreneurs, businesspeople, teachers , and more. And in those vital professions your contributions can be enormous. You can help save lives, provide prosperity, record history, prevent disease, train young minds. You will make a difference if you only accept the simple fact that you family and education and values have prepared you for this challenge as well as anyone in this country.

It is our grandparents—and your parents—who defended this country—who built this country—who brought you into this world and a chance to live the American dream. Will your generation do as much for your children?

You know you must. Every generation will be tested and given the opportunity to be the “greatest generation”.

And so, too, with the University of Notre Dame graduates of 2002. You were born and educated to be players in this extraordinary blessing called life.

Go climb that ladder of success and work and live in comfort. And enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it. And that is the American way.

But please do this world one small favor.

Remember the people struggling alongside you and below you. The people who haven’t had the same opportunity, the same blessings, the same Notre Dame education.

Twelve children a day are shot dead in the streets of American—more have died from bullets the past 15 years than we lost in the Vietnam War.

One simple and haunting statistic. If a young woman is 18 years old with a high school education, a job, and a spouse, the chances of her baby growing up in poverty are just eight percent.

If she is 18, without a high school diploma, without a job, without a spouse, the chance of her baby growing up in poverty is 80 percent—eight zero. And the correlation between poverty—and drugs, gangs, guns and death—is overwhelming, staggering, numbing.

All of us, in government, corporate America, labor unions, academia, churches, synagogues, mosques, and yes, the media, must teach, cajole, motivate our children to finish school, learn a skill, hold a job, get married, have a baby, in that order.

We all know extraordinary individuals who have succeeded against the odds—and we salute them—but it is so much better for any baby to have a loving mom and dad—both there at the creation and throughout the education and rearing of their precious child.

If we are serious about being the world’s premiere military, economics, and moral force in the world, we have no choice. We cannot leave any of our children behind. We will need all of our children contributing and prospering.

We can build more prisons, and we will, and put more police on the streets, and we should, but unless we instill in our young the most basic social skills and cultural and moral values, we will be a very different society. We must motivate, inspire, yes, insist our children respect one another—yes—“love thy neighbor as thyself.”

We must do everything in our power to make sure schools are meaningful, skills are learnable, jobs are available. No matter what profession you choose, you must try, even in the smallest ways to improve the quality of life of the children in our country.

No one has shown that generous spirit of service more than the Alliance for Catholic Educations and the Holy Cross Associations. No matter what your political philosophy, reach down from that ladder and see if there aren’t some children we can’t pull up a rung or two—some are sick, some are lonely, some are uneducated. Most have little control over their fate. Give them a hand. Give them a change. Give them their dignity.

We must teach our children they are never, never, entitled, but they are always, always loved. There is indeed a very simple truth, “No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person.”

This is your charge. That is your challenge. That is your opportunity.

That’s what I believe it means to be a member of the Class of 2002 of the University of Notre Dame. For the good of us all, specifically my 16-year-old son Luke, who is with me today, please build a future we all can be proud of.

You can do it.

But please get busy—you only have 2,300 weeks before you’ll be eligible for Social Security!

For me, my life is now complete. I have a Jesuit education and a Notre Dame diploma. Have a wonderful life.

Take care of one another.

Be careful tonight.

God Bless. This is my 25th honorary degree. Saving the best for last. Go Irish!