Saturday, June 14, 2008

Russert and Inheriting the Blue Collar Work Ethic

Russert and Inheriting the Blue Collar Work Ethic

“I'll take those long nights, impossible odds
keeping my eye to the keyhole”


The reports Tim Russert’s death goes back to one theme: the work ethic that he inherited from his father.

It’s the legacy of a blue collar family.

“Big Russ,” Russert’s dad, worked two full time jobs. Just like my dad did. Dad went to work in the morning, came home for dinner, and went to his night job. He worked every weekend and usually every holiday.

We never went on vacation. My parents didn’t take a honeymoon until 7 years after they were married.

No one thought it was strange. My mother was a nurse with. 70 hours work weeks. My grandmother rode a bus and walked for two hours to put in a 10 hour shift at a potato chip factory. She didn’t miss a day in 33 years.

All the neighbors had similar lifestyles. Although none produced a child as influential as Tim Russert, many of their children are well educated and successful.

No matter how far they have gone, the blue collar work ethic is part of those children’s psychic.

Like it is in mine.

In summers between high school, I worked 76 hours a week as a grocery clerk. It helped me save for a college degree, which I still have. I also gained 70 pounds, which I still have too.

The summer defined the rest of my life. 76 hours remained a normal work week. My work ethic has been my security blanket. I know I can outwork my competition and usually do. It also means that I put my job in front of my health, vacations, and fun time.

I suspect Russert was like me. I can’t turn it off, even if I wanted to. I doubt he could either.

Russert and I had professions that we love. Many people don’t like their work. It was what they do to support their families. Being educated allowed Tim and myself to have more options.

My parents loved their jobs but my grandma had a hard life. When I feel like slacking off, I think about my grandmother stacking boxes in a potato chip factory to support my mom and uncle.

The example of my ancestors keeps my nose to the grindstone.

I’ve fired smart people with poor work habits but can’t think of a time when I did the reverse. Work ethic is the unifying characteristic of my longtime employees. Most come from families where parents put in long hours. In a moment of true candor, one told me during a salary review, “I’ll work hard, even if you don’t give me a raise.”

Money was not the motivator for her. Pride in her work ethic was.

I once hired a man of wealth. He had tremendous skills but our attitudes about work drove each other crazy. I would get angry when he skipped out to hang at the country club.

We had different views of the world. Both stemming back to our childhoods.

When I see a guy like Russert die at age 58, it is a wake up call. I turn 50 next year. My dad died at 59 and my mom at 66. Few of my parent’s friends died of old age.

Tim came to work after an all night plane flight and two hours sleep. It’s the type of thing I’ve done all my life.

I think I should take time off but I don’t really don’t know how. My greatest frustration is that each day is not long enough to do all the stuff I want to do.

Like Russert, I was allowed to have a good education and career opportunities my parents couldn’t’ dream about. I want to make the most of those gifts.

I root for dedicated golfers like Tiger and against “The Big Easy” Ernie Els. I want hard working people to succeed and slackers punished.

A guy like Russert is a man to admire. He was a good family guy and great journalist. With drive and determination, the son of a garbage truck driver from Buffalo climbed to the top of his profession.

He inherited the gift of a blue collar work ethic. He also inherited its cost.

Don McNay is Chairman of McNay Settlement Group in Richmond, Kentucky and author of the book Son of a Son of a Gambler. You can write to him at and read his award winning column at