When the networks broke in this afternoon just after 3:30 p m EDT to announce Tim Russert’s death, the gentle giant of political reporting had only been gone from this world for five minutes.

He collapsed of a heart attack in NBC’s Washington, D.C., offices, where he spent the last 20 years of his life as bureau chief. The rush to get the news on the air was a tribute to Russert’s sterling journalistic reputation.

It didn’t take long for my tears to flow. I watched him every Sunday on Meet the Press. I hung on his every word when election results were incoming. He was to me the essence of the best reporting. Definitely the best debate moderator.

Since word broke, I’ve been listening to his colleagues reminisce. It is part of his legacy that those recollections evoke smiles. Russert’s smile lit up a TV screen and radiated into our living rooms.

Although he wasn’t too much older than I, he was a bit of a father figure. Also an older brother. He was playful and impish and so obviously enjoyed his work. His joie de vivre was contagious and bridged the gap between the TV and the viewer. He was, simply put, a friend (though I never met him) who visited and shared his wisdom (voluminous) and seemed to have great fun doing it.

He a was a lawyer and a corporate bureaucrat before he became a journalist. Most of all, he was a man who unabashedly loved his family, both the blood and the sweat kind.

“There is a piece of all of us that is gone today,” said Keith Olbermann. Dat’s a fact.

Heart goes out to his wife Maureen and his son Luke, who just graduated from Boston College. And of course, Big Russ, whom Tim very recently moved into a care facility in Buffalo. Surely this will be his saddest Father’s Day.

When they announce whether there will be a memorial in DC, I’ll post it and try to get there to report to you PDers. Surely Russert’s greatness as a reporter and a human being transcends party lines.