Our view: Oberstar fought for everyone, every day
Students in Elk River were demanding changes, demanding safety. A classmate had been killed trying to cross busy Highway 169 from houses on one side of the four-lane strip of concrete and 55 mph traffic to the school on the other. On a Saturday morning, still stinging from the tragedy, they met with their congressman.
“We’ll get you a pedestrian bridge,” U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar responded, as Ken Hasskamp, an Oberstar staff member for 28 years, recalled in an interview yesterday with the News Tribune Opinion page. The kids left grumbling, unsatisfied; politicians liked to say things like that, liked to make promises, but nothing ever came of it. Everyone knew that.
This time turned out differently, though.
“Today there’s a pedestrian bridge there,” said Hasskamp, who worked out of Oberstar’s Brainerd office. “And that was Jim. He said he was going to do something, and he did it. For years, whenever we’d go by that spot, Jim would say, ‘I’m really proud of that bridge.’ It was personal for him.”
For 36 years as representative of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, personal victories piled up for Oberstar like taconite pellets on the Duluth waterfront. He accomplished many great things, too, of course, and received all the appropriate accolades, things like the federal Clean Water Act, keeping Northwest Airlines out of bankruptcy and luring Cirrus Aircraft to Duluth. But Oberstar became a legend to an entire region and a hero to so many of us for the things he did day in and day out and for the connections he made with us one at a time — and one personal victory at a time.
Oberstar died in his sleep Saturday morning. He was 79. A visitation is scheduled this evening in Washington, D.C., with the funeral tomorrow at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Md.
“One of the things Jim told me, and I’ll never forget it, it was one of the first times we were together, he said what always made him happiest was when someone would come up to him and say, ‘Thanks, you made sure I got my vets check that got lost,’ or, ‘You made sure I got my disability.’ When someone came up and said, ‘I wrote your office and never heard anything,’ that was just the most crushing thing to him,” Hasskamp said. “It was always just those little things. Jim was such a true Northeastern Minnesotan. He stayed on top of everything so well.”
Once, a young woman from Pequot Lakes called Oberstar’s office, crying. Between tears she explained she received notice to register for the draft. When she didn’t because registering was something only young men had to do, Selective Service penalized her, including stripping her of college loans.
“The Selective Service determined she was a he,” Hasskamp recalled.
Upon hearing that, Oberstar took charge. “‘I’m going to call up the head of the Selective Service and he’s going to come to my office and explain to me how (this could happen) to a young woman from Pequot Lakes,’” Hasskamp recalled Oberstar saying. “Sure enough, he came over and soon he was writing the girl a letter, and it all got cleared up.”
John Schadl, an Oberstar staffer for 12 years in Duluth and for four years in Washington, D.C., recalled a veteran of the first Gulf War who was hit by friendly fire. The Army put him on its temporary disability retirement list, which actually extended his enlistment rather than leading him to the retirement he deserved. He even was ordered to go to Kentucky for the ongoing treatment of battle-related ailments.
“After two months of runaround, Jim said, ‘I’ve had it with this. I want to know the name of the person in the Pentagon in charge of the temporary disability retirement list,” Schadl told the Opinion page. That person was invited to Oberstar’s office, “And you know, all of a sudden, the guy was discharged. Jim called that, ‘Taking them to the woodshed.’ He felt he had to do that once in a while.
“Every citizen has a right to petition their government for redress of grievances,” Schadl said. “To Jim that was ‘casework.’ He was very passionate about it. … He was always very proud of the work the office did for individual constituents.”
Dave Boe was a staff assistant for Oberstar for 12 years in Duluth. He remembers a Vietnam veteran who was destitute, on the verge of homelessness, and not getting the benefits he deserved and desperately needed. With Oberstar’s full authority, Boe contacted vets offices in the Twin Cities and Washington, D.C., and he tracked down medical records and other necessary information.
“Through the power of the congressional office I was able to cut through that red tape,” Boe said. “I had the great joy of calling this veteran up and saying, ‘You’re covered.’ And, ‘You’re going to get back payments.’ And this guy cried; he cried on the phone.
“Because of the influence of this member of Congress someone’s life was changed for the better,” Boe said.
Not every member of Congress is the longest-serving in their state’s history or chairman of a powerful committee like Oberstar was. But more members of Congress can remember, like Oberstar did, that constituents come first and that even small victories are huge — and memorable — to someone.
“Not everyone, when they think of Congressman Oberstar, is going to remember some wetlands law that he got passed,” Boe said. “But they will remember when he got their son into West Point or when he helped with a passport. The mentality he always brought to the staff was, ‘Let’s work together and get things done.’ ”
Congressman Jim Oberstar certainly got things done, big things and seemingly small things. A pedestrian bridge in Elk River is but one of the countless reminders left scattered across the Northland by a hero and a legend.