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NCEA-OPEN Apr-26-2000 (620 words) xxxn

TV newsman thanks Catholic school teachers who 'changed my life'

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE (CNS) -- Former Catholic schoolboy "little Timmy Russert" opened the National Catholic Educational Association convention April 25 with heartfelt thanks for the Catholic school teachers who "changed my life."

Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC News and moderator of the weekly program "Meet the Press," was the first keynote speaker at the April 25-28 gathering, which brought more than 10,000 Catholic educators to Baltimore.

The theme of the 2000 convention is "Catholic Education -- Broad Stripes and Bright Stars," reflecting both Baltimore's status as birthplace of "The Star Spangled Banner" and the diversity and individual talents of Catholic education today.

Recalling his years at Canisius High School in Buffalo and John Carroll University in Cleveland, Russert said his father, a sanitation worker who never finished high school, "worked two jobs all his life so his four kids could go to Catholic school, and those schools changed my life."

In high school, "Sister Mary Lucille founded a school newspaper and appointed me editor and changed my life," he added. Teachers in Catholic schools "taught me to read and write, but also how to tell right from wrong."

Russert said the fate of our children is "the most important economic, national security and moral issue facing our country today."

Noting that a child born to an unmarried woman who has not finished high school has an 80 percent likelihood of living in poverty but a child born into a two-parent, high-school-educated family only has an 8 percent chance, he called for a national campaign "to convince our children to finish school, get a job, get married and then have a baby, in that order."

"You do change lives, and I have no doubt you have saved lives," Russert told the educators. "The secret of your success is that you believe in something -- in your God, your values, yourselves, your students.

"People like your students will make a difference in this country and this world," he added.

Catholic schools work against the notion that "success is only for the wealthy or the Ivy League," Russert said. He added that Catholic school teachers work to convince all students "that their families, their values and their Catholic school education have prepared them for the challenges of life as well as any other person in America."

Russert also entertained his audience with anecdotes related to his 1984 coup as executive in charge of the "Today" show in obtaining an on-air interview with Pope John Paul II. When executive producer Steve Friedman told him to "get the pope," Russert said he told him, "Steve, I used to be an altar boy, but there are a few steps in between."

He also recalled with glee the reaction of then "Today" show co-hosts Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley to being in the pope's presence. He called them "titans of journalism collapsing before my pope."

Other speakers at the opening session of the NCEA convention included Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, also a former Catholic schoolboy, who said Washington's Gonzaga High School and The Catholic University of America had prepared him "academically but also morally and spiritually for the demands" that his life would bring.

Cardinal Pio Laghi, retired prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican and former apostolic nuncio to the United States, was the principal celebrant for the convention's opening Mass.

Concelebrating with him were Cardinals William E. Keeler of Baltimore and James A. Hickey of Washington; Bishops Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wis., Paul S. Loverde of Arlington, Va., Bernard W. Schmitt of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., and Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del.; and Auxiliary Bishop William E. Lori of Washington.


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