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Carrying on the Russert Legacy: Luke Russert’s Journey from Grief to Self-Discovery

Luke Russert, BC ’08, was watching a soccer match at a bar in Florence when he got the call.

Having just earned degrees in communications and history, the newly minted Boston College alum was enjoying his postgraduate European vacation before buckling down to study for graduate school exams.

“I like to say that on June 12, 2008, the day before he passed, I was a happy-go-lucky recent college grad from BC,” Russert said. 

On June 13, 2008, Russert got the call that his father, Tim Russert, long-time moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, died from a heart attack. 

“And then June 13 passes,” Russert said. “And a few days later, I’m giving his eulogy and staring out at Barack Obama and John McCain in the pews. You grow up really quick in that moment.”

Russert’s new memoir, Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself, details his journey grappling with the loss of his father, exploring themes of grief, self-discovery, faith, and family. 

A New York Times bestseller, the book tracks his whirlwind career as a Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News in Washington, D.C., his surprising exit from broadcast journalism, and his subsequent journey to over 60 countries around the world. 

As the only son of two prominent journalists working in Washington, D.C., Russert said he had a unique upbringing. While his father was interviewing presidents on the longest-running show in network television history, Russert’s mother, Maureen Orth, was a Special Correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine.

“I remember growing up around the kitchen table in the morning or the dinner table at night, there would be conversations about American politics or pop culture—things they were working on,” Russert said.

Russert attended St. Albans, a private, Episcopalian, all-boys school in Northwest D.C. At a high school mixer, he met Mike Huffstetler, BC ’08, his future college roommate.

“We went to different all-boys schools in the D.C. area, and so we knew each other, but we weren’t buddies,” Huffstetler said. “We competed against each other in sports and for the attention of girls.”

He and Russert grew close during their freshman year on Upper Campus, Huffstetler said.

“Because his dad was a celebrity, people had preconceived notions of who he was, too,” Huffstetler said. “But Luke was just always such a good guy.”

Michael Greeley, BC ’08 and another one of Russert’s BC roommates and close friends, said he initially met Russert at freshman orientation.

“I was at orientation, and my father said, ‘That’s Tim Russert over there,’” Greeley said. “I remember that there was this really interesting energy around [Luke’s] parents, especially his dad.”

According to Greeley, Russert’s parents didn’t let fame or busy schedules stop them from prioritizing Russert and his friends.

“When they came to visit, they wanted to hang out with us,” Greeley said. “They didn’t come to visit us and then go out to dinner with other people in Boston. They wanted to sit down on the same couches that we sat down on and have a beer or whatever we could muster out of the fridge.”

Russert recounted that his father particularly enjoyed BC sports, attending as many football and basketball games as he could. When former BC quarterback Matt Ryan approached Russert on campus, Tim was eager to make the connection.

“[Ryan] comes up and just says hello to me while I’m walking with my dad on campus, and my dad chats him up,” Russert said. “Here’s Tim Russert, moderator of Meet the Press, who’s interviewing prime ministers and presidents and whatnot, and he’s more excited about talking to Matt Ryan for 20 minutes on the quad.”

The death of such a larger-than-life TV icon rocked the nation, Greeley recalled.

“It really felt like the whole world was focused on Tim Russert,” Greeley said. “I mean, it was incredible. Every news channel basically stopped.”

When Russert learned of his father’s passing, he flew home to deliver the eulogy at the funeral in Washington, D.C. Speaking to the nation’s most prominent figures only days after the death of his father forced Russert to rely on something greater than himself, he said.

“People have said to me, ‘How were you able to do that?’” Russert said. “I went into this place of, ‘I need to perform the best that I can because I have to honor my family the best that I can.’”

Russert said that while many people turn to anger and doubt in the wake of loss, his faith did not falter.

“I kind of found a sense of comfort and joy and faith in the sense of the process, especially in the Catholic church,” Russert said.

Families from all across the nation attended the funeral to tell Russert and his mother how much Tim and Meet the Press meant to them. It was in these moments that Russert started feeling the pressure to fulfill the family legacy and carry the torch of his father, he said.

Huffstetler and Greeley said that Russert’s eulogy exceeded even their expectations. 

“That was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen somebody do,” Huffstetler said. “We all knew him as our friend Luke, who we would go to mod parties with. Here he was, standing up in front of the most important people in the world at the time.”

Russert’s friends were not the only ones impressed by the eulogy. In the days following the funeral, NBC News reached out to Russert to discuss career options.

“It sort of made sense what happened next, with him entering the news business, just because he did such a great job of gracefully handling what happened and being a good spokesperson for his mother and for his father,” Greeley said.

From 2008 to 2016, Russert served as a correspondent for various NBC News programs, spending the majority of his career as a congressional correspondent covering the House of Representatives.

“I sort of threw myself into that role,” Russert said. “But what ended up happening over the course of those years—as I got further and further away from knowing who I was independent of that—I became very focused on legacy preservation and doing what I thought was expected of me.”

According to Huffstetler, Russert would wake up before dawn and arrive at the House by 6 a.m. each morning. Russert said the network broadcasting grind left him little time to unpack the death of his father.

Facing unprocessed grief and a steady stream of nepotism accusations, Russert said he struggled with his mental health while reporting in Washington, D.C.

“For many years, I stored and ignored,” Russert said. “There really weren’t the platforms that you see now to seek out help.”

But things changed in 2016, when former Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Russert to his office for a conversation.

“He asked a very simple question,” Russert explained. “He said, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’”

Boehner warned Russert that a lifetime career on Capitol Hill could cause him to lose touch with reality.

“He goes, ‘It’s okay to be here, but if you really want to do something else, don’t feel limited—it could serve you,’” Russert said.

So a few months later, in the midst of what Huffstetler called a “meteoric rise” to his career, Russert resigned from his position at NBC.

“As an outsider, you could definitely say it was surprising because he had this great career going,” Greeley said. “But, you know, it wasn’t all that surprising because you could just tell that he had some processing left to do.”

After leaving NBC, Russert decided to explore the wilderness in Maine. On his drive there, he visited Greeley’s house in South Boston.

“I could tell that he had an itch to go and do something,” Greeley said. “He was going to hit the road.”

After experiencing the power of solo exploration in Maine, Russert said he craved more. Over the next few years, he traveled the globe, attempting to learn as much as possible about each new place he visited. From Paraguay to New Zealand, Cambodia to Senegal, and Iceland to Jerusalem, Russert’s odyssey introduced him to brand-new corners of the world.

“You’re simultaneously searching for something—what your own identity is independent of the bubble you grew up in, independent of your last name, independent of all these things that have shaped you—and then you’re also running away from something, and that’s the pain of losing your father,” Russert said.

Although he didn’t originally plan to write a book, Russert said that the idea behind Look For Me There first came to him in 2018 as he flipped through his journal entries.

“I went back through these journals that I had been keeping throughout the entire process, and they were incredibly impactful,” Russert said. “I realized there was something there that could be interesting, but that could also help people.”

Once Russert identified the central themes of the book, the words just poured out, he said. According to Russert, his first draft exceeded 300,000 words—200,000 more than the published version.

Because his intended audience was fellow millennials, Russert said he was floored when he discovered that the majority of people who reached out belonged to his parents’ generation.

“I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people in their 60s, 70s, 80s—even their 90s,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Your book helped me to process the loss of my own parents, or my child, or my spouse, or someone else close to me.’”

While Look For Me There means different things to different people, Huffstetler and Greeley emphasized that the strength of Russert’s relationship with his father is particularly crucial for readers to understand.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a father-son relationship as strong, as loving, as caring as that of Luke and Tim Russert,” Huffstetler said. “That [relationship] was not manufactured for TV. It was truly something else.”

Russert, who will return to broadcasting as the host and creative director of MSNBC Live, said that as he approaches a new chapter, his father continues to be an example for him.

He was someone who was incredibly busy, and he was somebody who really, on some days, had the world on his shoulders,” Russert said. “But he always gave me the gift of time.” 

January 30, 2024