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“If it’s Sunday…” The story behind the Meet the Press Fellowship

Mark Heayn/NBC_NewsWire
Editor-in-Chief Laken Kincaid uncovers Tim Russert’s unforgettable legacy at John Carroll.

Sealed behind walls of glass in the O’Malley Center at John Carroll University lies a small glimpse into a larger-than-life story, some of which was captured on camera and under the bright lights of NBC. For 17 years, one of JCU’s most famous alumni sat down every Sunday morning in front of nearly four million curious eyes, all longing to understand the week’s inner workings of the American political sphere; Tim Russert was poised and armed with questions for the governmental elite as the paradigmatic host of “Meet the Press.”

This small exhibit on campus is a microcosm of the footprint Russert left behind at John Carroll. Not only was the Tim Russert Department of Communication renamed after him following his abrupt passing, but a once in a lifetime opportunity was created for political junkies and aspiring journalists who one day too hoped to command the pen just as Russert did.

However, Russert’s legacy did not start in ink or in a lower third graphic. Instead, it happened amidst a time of great tribulation for the nation as college students faced anxieties regarding a looming draft lottery or radical protests. From all of this rubble, Russert emerged in 1968 as a young freshman from Buffalo, NY, roaring to make an impact.

“He really was at first a typical first year student whose claim to fame was that he had done some work with the Democratic Party in Buffalo,” Dr. Joe Miller, a professor of Russert’s, told The Carroll News. “If I remember correctly, he drove Robert Kennedy around a couple of times.”

As Russert rose through the ranks at Carroll, he earned a reputation of being an inquisitive and prominent force on campus. Linda Meglin ‘74, creator of the film “The Tim Russert I Knew” and a classmate of Russert’s, said that he was “larger than life.”

“He was a natural born leader and so inquisitive about everything,” she elaborated. “He would meet you and he would ask you a million questions just like any good journalist would. He was so good when he asked a question, he listened to the answer, and he was thoughtful about that answer. That answer always led to another question. It was almost in his DNA.”

This was also observed by the many faculty and staff that Russert interacted with. Dr. David LaGuardia, the advisor of the U-Club at the time when Russert was president of the organization, recalls that he was a “dynamic student” where “even back then we had reason to be grateful for his presence.”

“Tim was comfortable with complex ideas and issues,” LaGuardia stated. “He loved to talk through the anger and get to essences. These gifts became quite clear later, of course, during his ‘Meet the Press’ years, but they were in full blossom also during these times of amazing turbulence on Carroll’s campus. In retrospect, the scene I most remember now was a day when he and several members of the University Club were in my living room in Cleveland Heights and Tim had pulled away from the rest to pick up my three-year-old son to bounce him on his knee and talk to him. This was a unique sophomore.”

Until his death, Russert was, as described by his son Luke Russert, “fiercely proud of JCU” and its Jesuit values based education, attributing much of his success to his undergraduate education.

“When he started work for Senator Moynihan in the late 1970s, he was surrounded by lots of Ivy League graduates,” Luke Russert told The Carroll News. “Moynihan could tell he was intimidated and brought Dad into his office. He said the following, ‘What they have, you can learn, what you have, they can never learn.’ The ‘have’ is what JCU is all about—a Jesuit values based education that cares about community and wellbeing.”

Yet, despite his drive and charisma, those who watched Russert grow didn’t quite know what he was going to do after graduating. Although he received the Beaudry Man of the Year Award in 1972, his future, although bright, was not clear. When asked if he thought Russert would go into journalism, Miller said no and that he thought the ambitious student “would be in government and elected someplace in New York State.”

“He wasn’t sure what he was going to do,” Meglin said. “He went back to Buffalo. When he worked for the city of Buffalo, he kind of got the political bug. It was in him already, but he really got a taste of it.”

In the end, law was not the end goal for Russert. In 1984, he was hired by NBC News’ Washington bureau and swiftly became chief merely five years later. In just a short stint of time, he took up the mantle as the host of “Meet the Press” where he revolutionized the platform and reinvigorated political news for decades to come.

“Along comes Tim Russert to host ‘Meet the Press’ on NBC as an hour format,” Pete Williams, NBC’s previous justice correspondent and one of Russert’s many hires at the station, told The Carroll News. “Tim’s mission was to get the mojo back to NBC. He kind of moved away from this ‘Meet the Press’ format and it turned more into a one on one interview with Tim and his technique was to try to get people to move beyond the familiar sound bites. I think that was the innovation that Tim brought to it.”

Russert brought a new spirit to the media, putting his passion into his work consistently. According to Williams, “Meet the Press” was “not just a project” for the weekend for the moderator. Instead, he would be thinking about the week’s coming episode “as soon as the lights went off on Sunday.”

“All week long, he would be thinking,” Williams continued. “What is the subject for this week? Who is the best guest? He really worked very hard at it. I can tell he reinvigorated it and, of course, it was number one under him. What the world needs are people who bring that talent, that aptitude, that sense of hard work and that mission to inform people.”

Yet, the nation was rocked by Russert’s untimely death on Jun. 13, 2008 who collapsed while recording voice overs for that week’s airing of the show. Following the shock of the initial tragedy, both NBC and John Carroll searched for ways to immortalize him.

“When my father passed, there was talk at NBC about naming a building after him or something like that,” Luke Russert said. “My mother and I were pretty emphatic that Dad would much prefer a living legacy, as in giving young people an opportunity to dream, achieve and ultimately find lifelong success. Tom Brokaw felt the same way and pushed for a robust youth focused program.”

Wheels began to turn both at JCU and at NBC when, during Russert’s funeral, previous NBC Nightly News Managing Editor Tom Brokaw approached then-university president Fr. Robert Niehoff and previous Director of Alumni Relations Ryan Daly ‘99 ‘12G.

“It really started with a conversation with Tom Brokaw at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown and a whole series of conversations took place after that for many months,” Daly told The Carroll News

Following this, after months of work, both the Communication Department’s new moniker and the “Meet the Press” fellowship were announced.

“It was May of 2009 and we had an event on campus with many of Tim’s classmates,” Daly said. “We announced a couple of things to honor Tim’s memory going forward, one was naming the Department of Communication in his name. The other was acknowledging and announcing the celebration of the ‘Meet the Press’ fellowship.”

Daly, who currently serves as JCU’s Vice President for University advancement, says that it is important to highlight that the fellowship was “the result of many individuals who came together” including many of Russert’s family, colleagues, friends and classmates.

Nevertheless, a fellowship would not be a fellowship without the fellows that make up the program. Andrew Rafferty ‘09 was the first JCU student to receive the “Meet the Press” fellowship, an opportunity where he says he was “in the right place at the right time.”

“It wasn’t a thing that existed when I was at Carroll,” Rafferty said. “I was very familiar with Tim Russert and his role and responsibilities. It was just a really lucky moment that, out of his unfortunate passing, they were able to create this opportunity.”

According to Rafferty, the application and interview process looks very similar to how it is conducted today with three finalists inevitably interviewing top producers of the show. With the start of his role as the first official John Carroll fellow in September of that same year, Rafferty began a legacy that carries on today with 14 eager predecessors following him thus far.

While the next Blue Streak to hold this position is up in the air, one thing is for sure: Russert’s legacy lives on through these students. As Williams stated, “we stand on the shoulders of the people who come before us,” and the “Meet the Press” fellowship continues to garner attention from current undergraduates and prospective students alike.

“I think it’s important for folks to know that Tim’s legacy continues on in his John Carroll friends and also in today’s students with the legacy of the ‘Meet the Press’ fellowship,” Daly concluded. “It is really pretty inspiring to see the individuals who have gone through the program and then what they have gone on to do with their careers.”

While the media industry is in flux due to the rise of #FakeNews propaganda and the rising prevalence of artificial intelligence, JCU’s “Meet the Press” fellowship is expected to remain a steadfast facet of campus and a token of Russert’s lasting legacy. Luke Russert says that his father would be pleased with the fellowship as it stands even among the current stressors journalists face.

“I think Dad would be beyond proud of what the MTP fellowship has been able to achieve and would not be surprised at its success because JCU always shows up and performs,” he ended.

From Russert’s mentors to his mentees and well beyond, his name will continue to live on as a breathing legacy that inspires future journalists at John Carroll for many years to come.

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About the Contributor
Laken Kincaid, Editor-in-Chief
Laken Kincaid is the Editor-in-Chief for The Carroll News from Beckley, West Virginia. They are a senior at John Carroll University who is double majoring in political science and communications (digital media) and minoring in leadership development. Laken has written for The Carroll News since the start of their freshman year and has previously served as a staff reporter, campus section editor and managing editor of the paper. They have received 18 Best of SNO awards, a Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence award for Region 4 and two honorable mentions from the College Media Association. They have also been recognized by universities like Georgetown for their investigative reports. Additionally, they also write political satire for The Hilltop Show and feature stories on global poverty for The Borgen Project. In addition to their involvement with The Carroll News, Laken is involved with the Kappa Delta sorority, the speech and debate team, the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, the Improv club and other organizations. They also serve as the news director for WJCU 88.7, John Carroll's own radio station, and as the president for John Carroll's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.  Laken also started their own national nonprofit organization known as Art with the Elderly which they have won the President's Volunteer Service Award and the Humanity Rising Award for. When not writing, Laken can be found doing graphic design for their internship with Union Home Mortgage or working as a resident assistant and peer learning facilitator on campus. Laken also enjoys skiing and watching true crime documentaries. In the future, Laken hopes to become a political journalist for a national news organization or to be a campaign commercial editor for politicians. To contact Laken, email them at [email protected].

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    Paul Kantz ‘63Dec 4, 2023 at 12:38 pm

    Well-done piece, Laken. You’ve captured the Tim I knew.