There is no good time to die. But Tim Russert’s untimely death two days before Father’s Day was one of the worst. The death of the beloved Meet the Press host also happened a day after he had returned from a family vacation in Italy, celebrating his son Luke’s graduation from Boston College.
I only knew Russert from what I saw on television and read about him, but I have no doubt that he was a great father and son. So I feel sorry for Big Russ, his father, who just recently was moved into a nursing facility. But my heart goes out to Luke, Tim’s son, who will forever connect his graduation and Father’s Day with the loss of his caring and loving dad.
Russert was only 58 years old when he died. That’s three years younger than I am now. That’s way too young. My father died way too young as well. He was the same age I am now when he, like Russert, died suddenly from a heart attack.
I’ve never fully recovered from his death, which was 24 years ago. My older son, Scott, was just five months old. My younger son, Kyle, was not yet born. Over the years, as I fumbled my way through fatherhood, I frequently wished my father was around to teach my sons lessons on life. I regularly wished he was around for my sons to know the joy they surely would have experienced had he lived to share with them a grandfather’s love.
That was not to be. I am reminded as much this Father’s Day as I cherish my wonderful sons and miss my great father.
(The photo above is of my father and my nephew, Chuck. It was shot in 1973. The one to the right is of Kyle, Scott and me. It was taken four years ago.)
Here’s an op-ed page column I wrote commemorating my father’s life just days after he passed away.
A good man and great father
The Chicago Tribune
January 20, 1984
Life is a series of wishes for second chances.
For me, that impulse to backtrack has sometimes been sparked by insignificant little moments. Hasty motions leading to the spilling of milk or the breaking of treasured objects have prompted me to wish my actions had been more measured. Cutting words to close friends during heated arguments have left me wishing I had thought longer before speaking. Missed catches in the outfield have had me wishing I had kept my eyes on the ball.
At other times, rather than an instant replay, I’ve tried to guess what would have happened if I had had a chance to draw up an entirely different game plan during the pivotal periods in my life. When I was going through a divorce several years back, I felt that way. What if I had done this rather than that? Could the marriage have been saved? Should it have occurred in the first place?
Last week, I craved a second chance. I would have traded a year of my life for the ability to turn back the clock a mere 12 hours.
Monroe Anderson, my father and my friend, died, without warning, on the morning of Jan. 9 at his home in Gary. He suffered a heart attack at the age of 61.
As soon as I learned of his death, I began second-guessing what might have happened if I could have stopped the clock and turned it back 12 hours for a second chance. I would have been there at his side. Maybe I could have done something to save his life. If fate had to prevail, then at least I could have had final words with him. In reality, there was only the finality of it all. There were no second chances.
But while he was alive, my father had had a second chance. In a curious and vicarious way, I was it.
To explain how and why I came to be my father’s second chance. I’ll have to go back to the beginning. He was the son of yet another Monroe Anderson, a sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta. In 1923, my father’s family’s little tenant shack was uprooted by a tornado. The bodies of his father, mother and 6-year-old sister were found in a field a mile away. My father, one year old, was found there too. As his tiny body was being loaded on the horse drawn cart bearing the heap of corpses, someone noticed him shudder. He was raised by his grandmother and two young aunts.
As a teenager, he came to the North to improve his life. He moved to Gary where life and earning a living were easier for an unskilled young black man with an eighth grade education. In late 1942, he received his draft notice. He persuaded Norma, the 17-year-old love of his life, to elope with him so that if he went overseas, he’d have a family of his own back home.
After he received his honorable discharge, he returned to Gary to establish an instant family by inviting his widowed mother-in-law to share his home; she has been there since. I was born about a year later; my sister and brother followed. Although during his life he would labor as a coal truck deliveryman, a cab driver, a cabinetmaker and a steelworker, his true profession was that of a father and family man.
When he wasn’t working, he was at home. When he went out, he took us with him. What little money he managed to make, he spent on us. He wanted us to have the things he hadn’t had—an education was the most important of those things.
To send his first-born to college, he worked two full-time jobs at two steel mills so my tuition and room and board wouldn’t impose a financial hardship on the rest of the family. It was worth the price to him. My success was his reward.
I remember his telling me how he had taken a clipping of my first newspaper article to show people at the mill. “That’s funny,” his superintendent commented cruelly when shown the article. “Your son’s a writer but you can barely write your name.”
I also recall his reaction to an appearance I made on a Phil Donahue show in 1976 following an investigative series I had worked on for The Tribune. As I spoke, my name appeared on the screen. “Look. Look, that’s my name on television,” he said with unbridled excitement.
I was not only his namesake, I was an alter ego. He took pride in my accomplishments while I found comfort in my belief that had he been given the same support and opportunities, he would have achieved that much and more.
Over the years, my love and gratitude were spoken and unspoken time and time again. Still, there is this hollow feeling inside me that hungers for one more chance to tell him how good a man he had been and what a great father he’ll always be.