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Oberstar remembered as 'a man of purpose and grit'

The casket containing the remains of former Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., is carried into Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church for a Mass of Christian Burial, in Potomac, Md., Thursday, May 8, 2014. Oberstar served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 2011 and died in his sleep at home in Potomac, Md., on May 3, 2014. He was 79 years old. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

POTOMAC, Md. — Jim Oberstar was Minnesota’s longest-serving member of Congress, but he was remembered Thursday more for being a dedicated dad and husband, a doting grandfather and a kid from Chisholm who did good.

Friends and family recalled a man who skipped social functions on Capitol Hill to attend his kid’s soccer games and who patiently listened through a 7-year-old granddaughter’s reading of her very first chapter book just a few weeks ago.

“We are all so blessed to have had such an amazing example of love and family,” said Monica Weber, one of Oberstar’s four children, all of whom eulogized their father Thursday.

Oberstar was celebrated at a Mass of Christian Burial at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Md., a suburban Washington, D.C., community. It was the church where he sat in the second row most every Sunday at the 7 a.m. Mass, said Fr. Raymond Kemp, a longtime Oberstar friend and one of five priests who led the service.

“We can make this a celebration of a life well-lived on behalf of the greater good of all,” Kemp said to begin what became a two-hour service.

The 79-year-old Oberstar died in his sleep early Saturday at his home near here. Friends and family said he had been in excellent health. The former congressman from Chisholm represented Northeastern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District for 36 years, first elected in 1974 and serving 18 consecutive terms through 2011. That included a stint as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

During those decades in office, Oberstar was involved in most major federal transportation issues — from freeway bridges to Great Lakes locks to airports and rail service. But he may have been most proud of his creation of the Safe Routes to Schools program and for pushing development of bicycle trails and routes, not just as recreation but as a viable mode of transportation, said Ted Link-Oberstar, his son.

There are now more than 40,000 schools in all 50 states that have developed official safe routes for students to walk or bike to school, Link-Oberstar said, noting his dad was inspired to help all children by his love for his own children.

Jim Oberstar was proud to be known as “Mr. Transportation,” his son said. “But the two titles he was proudest of were dad and grandpa.”

Nearly 500 people attended the service in the bluestone church on what became a warm, muggy and sunny May afternoon. That included a wealth of Washington dignitaries, past and present, such as U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Minnesota Democrats, and more than a dozen House members, including Minnesota Democrats Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan. Several of Oberstar’s past staff members also attended, including Duluth Mayor Don Ness.

Klobuchar called Oberstar “a man of purpose and grit, as resilient as the people he represented in northern Minnesota,” praising his dedication to do what was right for the people of Minnesota, and the nation, and for taking paths that were not always politically expedient.

“In this day of sound bites and quick fixes … he was not afraid to give the long explanation to his constituents,” Klobuchar said, saying Oberstar excelled on transportation, mine- and worker-safety laws and other “bread and butter legislating that made people’s lives better.

“There is no question Jim Oberstar left this Earth a better place than he found it,” she added.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary and Congressman Norman Mineta, who served on the House Transportation Committee with Oberstar for 22 years, was among those who spoke during the service. Mineta praised Oberstar’s ability to grasp tough subjects and tackle important issues, and for dedicating his career to bettering transportation for commerce and people. But Mineta, who was first elected to Congress the same year as Oberstar, said the northern Minnesota congressman was also a very dear friend.

“He loved to talk. But one thing always came first. That was listening. He was such a very good listener,” Mineta said. “He was a great public servant. But more than that, he was a great person.”

Several speakers drew laughs between tears by recalling Oberstar’s penchant for making long-winded speeches about complicated subjects many people weren’t as excited about.

“Unlike my fathers’ speeches, mine will be brief,” daughter Annie Oberstar quipped.

Franken praised Oberstar’s vast knowledge of transportation issues. When asked once by a Minnesota voter why he opposed term limits, Franken said he gave a two-word answer — “Jim Oberstar” — noting it was logical to have the most knowledgeable person in the nation on transportation issues making transportation policy. “Jim Oberstar was a walking advertisement against term limits,” Franken said.

But the one-time “Saturday Night Live” comedian couldn’t help but poke some fun at Oberstar’s reputation as a long talker. When asked to dedicate a new building at Voyageurs National Park, Franken recalled, Oberstar proceeded to give the crowd on hand the full history of the French fur traders for whom the park is named.

“Jim believed everyone was as curious about the world as he was,” Franken said. “And he was almost always wrong about that.”

Oberstar will be interred next to his first wife at a Maryland cemetery in a private family service, an associate of the family said. A memorial service is expected in Northeastern Minnesota in coming weeks, but details have not yet been finalized.

Oberstar was born on Sept. 10, 1934, the son of a miner in Chisholm, and worked the mines himself during summer breaks from college. After graduating from Chisholm High School in 1952, he attended the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, graduating with majors in French and political science. He went on to the College of Europe in Belgium, where he earned a master’s degree in European studies.

Beginning in 1959, Oberstar spent four years in Haiti teaching French and Creole to U.S. military personnel and English to Haitian officials.

Oberstar had lived in the Washington area most of his adult life, since going to work for his predecessor in Congress, John Blatnik, in 1963. That’s the same year he married Jo Garlick, and the couple raised four children. She died of breast cancer in 1991. In 1993, he married Jean Kurth, who also had lost a spouse to cancer. They met while being counseled by the same priest.

Oberstar continued to speak French often and became a regular on both French and Canadian media because of his ability to converse on key issues in their language. On Thursday, the French ambassador to the U.S., Francois Delattre, joked in his eulogy that Oberstar “spoke French better than I do.” Delattre praised Oberstar’s efforts to bolster cooperation and communication between the two nations, including starting what became the French Congressional Caucus, a group that now boasts more than 100 members.

Oberstar was “a longtime and treasured friend of France,” Delattre said, ending simply, “merci, Jim.”