Russert feels right at home at Commencement

Author: Notre Dame Magazine


“It’s not often you have a chance to meet and talk with people who share the same background and the same values,” Tim Russert told nearly 11,000 graduates, friends and family packed into the Joyce Center arena for the University’s 157th commencement exercises May 19, 2002.

The moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press and chief of the network’s Washington bureau, Russert seemed to have gauged his audience accurately as his address — a lively mix of Washington anecdotes, advice and opinion — was interrupted by applause six times.

The newsman, who once interviewed Pope John Paul II, drew his first ovation when he talked about the sexual abuse scandal involving priests. Describing himself as a “respectful servant” of “the church I love,” he called on U.S. bishops to bring about healing and reconciliation with those harmed and to take “specific and enforceable measures” to ensure such abuse is never tolerated by the church again.

Another ovation followed his words about the importance of education and traditional family structures. Russert recited statistics showing that if a mother is 18 and has a high school education, a job, and a spouse, the chances of her baby growing up in poverty are 8 percent. Lacking those supports, he said, the chance is 80 percent.

“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.”

Russert grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his father worked as a truck driver and sanitation worker. He said he was the first person in his family to have a chance to attend college. He went to a small Jesuit university, John Carroll, in suburban Cleveland.

“For me my life is now complete. I have a Jesuit education and a Notre Dame diploma,” he said near the end of his talk, referring to the honorary doctor of laws he had received earlier in the ceremony.

Other familiar names receiving honorary degrees a commencement were motion picture director, producer and actor Sydney Pollack, who grew up South Bend, and Emmy Award-winning actress, activist and humanitarian Cicely Tyson.

Russert began his talk by holding up a large dry-erase board reminiscent of the smaller one he famously used to calculate electoral college totals during NBC’s coverage of the tight 2000 presidential election. This one read, “Yo no soy [Spanish for ’I’m not’] Vicente Fox.” It was a reference to the president of Mexico, who was originally scheduled to deliver this year’s commencement address but was unable to attend because of political circumstances in Mexico.

In his valedictory address, Timothy W. Dolezal ‘02, a finance and business economic major from Carroll, Iowa, began by trying to quantify the cumulative experience of the Class of 2002: 175,000 exams, 3,600 Sunday dorm masses, etc. But the valedictorian, whose father and grandfather both graduated from Notre Dame, urged his classmates not to measure their future lives by statistics like how much money they made or how many times they got their names in the paper. At the end our lives, God won’t ask about any of that, he said.

“In my opinion, God is going to ask two simple questions: First, ‘Do you love me?’ And, second, ‘What did you do for my people?’ If we devote all our energy to answering those two questions, we will be living our Note Dame experience to its fullest potential.”

Also speaking at commencement was this year’s Laetare Medalist, Father John P. Smyth ’57, executive director of Maryville Academy, a residence for orphaned and homeless children. The facility is located in Des Plaines, Illinois, near Chicago.

Smyth was a standout basketball player at Notre Dame and joked about still holding the school record for most personal fouls committed during a three-year career.

“I couldn’t run, couldn’t jump and couldn’t shoot. But God gave me two beautiful elbows, and I used them.”

The priest urged graduates to make the most of their God-given abilities and said he knew from Maryville that children cannot succeed without family, faith and education.

“You will change the world and be successful because you have [them].”

In addition to Russert, Pollack and Tyson, the following people received honorary doctorates at commencement: Margaret Bent, musicologist and senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford; Lord John Browne of Madingley (Cambridgeshire, England) group chief executive of BP Amoco; Alfred C. DeCrane Jr. ‘53, retired chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Texaco Inc.; Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Promoting Christian Unity; Helen Lieberman, founder and executive director of South African nonprofit organization Ikamva Labantu; Helen R. Quinn, physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge; William P. Sexton, retiring vice president for university relations at Notre Dame; Patrick Toole, retired senior vice president of IBM Corporation.

Notre Dame Magazine, summer 2002