"We're holding up as best as can be," said the newsman's son about his family

By Stephen M. Silverman
June 16, 2008 08:15 AM

The person described as the “light of Tim Russert’s life,” his son Luke, said he and his mother are “hanging’ in there, [we] take it day by day” after the shocking, sudden death of his father, NBC newsman Tim Russert, on Friday. “We’re holding up as best as can be.”

Speaking at the top of Monday morning’s Today show, the recent Boston College grad expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support he and his mother, print journalist Maureen Orth, have received, and said that planning for his father’s funeral is helping to keep their minds off their sadness.

“She grieves like a wife, and I grieve like a son, so we’re mourning differently,” he said, also stressing that the family’s Catholicism is strong source of support.

In a statement detailing autopsy results, Russert’s physician Dr. Michael Newman said that the Meet the Press host “was known to have asymptomatic coronary artery disease [atherosclerosis], which resulted in hardening of his coronary arteries.

“His family was the most important thing in the world,” his sister Kathy Russert-Hughes, 52, told PEOPLE. “And he always had time for family.”

She added about her brother’s relationship with his son: “Tim was a great dad, they were the closest a father could be to a son, a bond as strong as I’ve ever seen. The love was unimaginable from the day he was born.”

Big Russ’s Reaction

On Today, Luke also discussed his grandfather, retired Buffalo (N.Y.) sanitation worker Tim Russert Sr., known affectionately as “Big Russ” and the subject of Tim Russert’s 2004 bestseller, Big Russ & Me.

Big Russ reportedly has not been himself and was recently placed in a care facility. Even so, said Luke, “I spoke to him yesterday, and I think he realized what happened.”

Big Russ would say, Luke recalled, that in the family dynamic, Tim was “like the pitcher,” Luke was “like the catcher” and Big Russ was “like the umpire.” And now they’ve lost their pitcher.

Mom’s Influence

Luke also paid tribute to his mother, who writes for Vanity Fair, describing her as “tough” and pointing out that when his parents were dating (the couple wed in 1983, and Luke was born three years later), Orth had a powerful byline as a cultural reporter for Newsweek, which made her more influential back then than Russert, whose career was just beginning to break.

Among those Orth covered for the newsweekly was Bruce Springsteen, who sent a memorial message to Today about Russert’s passing.

A Forgiving Father

As described by Luke, Tim Russert came across as a concerned, loving and forgiving parent – even in the matter of Luke’s secretly getting a tattoo during his senior year of high school, in November ’03. The younger Russert was permanently marked with “TJR” – not only his own initials, but also that of his father and grandfather.

“This way,” he explained, “I always have them at my side.”

Tim Russert happened to catch his first glimpse of the skin decoration when Luke was trying on a shirt on Christmas morning. Though Tim’s initial reaction was, “He did what?”, ultimately he came to accept what his son had done.

Advised Luke: “If you have a tattoo, show it to your parents on Christmas.”

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