Jim Oberstar was remembered on Saturday for his encyclopedic command of policy details, his devotion to the people of northern Minnesota and - to those who knew him best - as a mentor and friend.
Oberstar, a Chisholm native who was the longest-serving member of Congress in Minnesota history, died in his sleep on Saturday morning in his Maryland home, a statement from his family said. He was 79.
His death prompted tributes from across Minnesota and beyond.
“Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Jim Oberstar,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “Jim cared deeply about the people of Minnesota, devoting his 36 years of service to improving America’s infrastructure, creating opportunity for hard-working Minnesotans, and building a strong economy for future generations of Americans.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., whose grandfather, like Oberstar’s father, worked in the Iron Range mines, noted Oberstar’s rise from humble roots.
“He was a miner’s kid, and came from those hardscrabble mines to chair one of the most powerful committees in Congress,” Klobuchar said. “He had this treasure trove of knowledge.”
‘Never stopped working for the public good’
Oberstar, who was first elected to serve Minnesota’s 8th District in 1974 and was re-elected 17 times before losing to Chip Cravaack in 2010, remained active with the projects and issues he cared about to the end of his life, associates said.
“He never really stopped working for the public good,” said Bill Richard, who served as Oberstar’s chief of staff for 20 years. “He was fond of saying, ‘You know, people pay me now to tell them what I used to tell them for free.’ ”
Richard, who saw Oberstar last week, said his former boss was as involved and busy as ever.
Oberstar had talked about possibly attending the 8th District DFL Convention in Nashwauk on Saturday, Richard said. Known for long bicycle rides, Oberstar was excited about participating in the annual “Ride with Jim” on the Paul Bunyan Trail near Brainerd this summer, Richard added.
On Friday evening, Oberstar and his wife, Jean, attended a play in which a granddaughter had a role, Richard said. He had not been in ill health.
“He was in great shape, great health,” Richard said. “No one was more surprised than those who are close to him that he passed.”
Klobuchar said she had called Jean Oberstar on Saturday morning to express her condolences.
“She said that … he was healthy to the end; there was absolutely nothing wrong with him,” Klobuchar related.
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, who holds Oberstar’s seat, said he and his wife, Mary, had been with Jim and Jean Oberstar two nights earlier.
“Jim was full of life and good health,” Nolan said.
When Nolan joked that Oberstar did a thousand pushups a day, Oberstar corrected him, saying it was only a hundred.
Oberstar is survived by his wife, four children and eight grandchildren. Details on funeral arrangements were not announced Saturday.
Reaction in the Northland
Duluth Mayor Don Ness, who was Oberstar’s campaign manager from 1997 to 2007, called Oberstar the most influential person in his life outside of his own family.
“Over the past 50 years, no public official has done more for our region than Jim Oberstar,” Ness said.
Nolan got to know Oberstar when both were young congressional aides. He was first elected to Congress the same year as Oberstar and now holds the seat that was Oberstar’s.
“Nobody gave more than Jim Oberstar,” said a visibly moved Nolan during a news conference in Duluth on Saturday afternoon. “He was the best.”
Both Nolan and Klobuchar talked about a time last year when the former congressman entered the House floor and drew an instant standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats alike.
“I had never seen anyone get a standing ovation just walking into the House of Representatives,” Nolan said.
Although a Democrat, Oberstar started in Congress when bipartisan cooperation was more common, Nolan said, and he maintained positive relations with both sides.
Tony Sertich, who like Oberstar is a Chisholm native and now serves as commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, cited Oberstar’s continuing devotion to the Iron Range and his ability to master difficult subjects.
“I have never come across anybody who is more well-studied about issues or who worked harder to research and understand these very complex issues that he worked on,” Sertich said.
Sertich was the Minnesota House majority leader the day of the 2007 Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Oberstar, who was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was the first call Sertich made, he said.
“Some people were rushing to TV cameras,” Sertich said. “He said, ‘I am sitting at my desk writing the bill that will provide the emergency funding needed to rebuild that bridge, and I will have a meeting tomorrow.’ That’s the kind of workhorse he was.”
From Chisholm to national stage
Jim Oberstar was born on Sept. 10, 1934, the son of a miner in Chisholm, and worked the mines himself as a youth. 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.
“He was one of the few people in the United States who knew the Haitian dialect,” said Craig Grau, a retired political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Although known best for his work on transportation, Oberstar maintained the expertise he developed on foreign policy as a young man, Grau added.
Oberstar went to work for Rep. John Blatnik in 1963, initially serving as a clerk on a subcommittee of the Transportation Committee. When Blatnik announced his retirement in 1974, Oberstar won the DFL primary for the seat and went on to easily win a three-way race in the general election.
Ten years later, he sought the DFL nomination for Senate but lost the endorsement battle to Secretary of State Joan Growe. It was his only try for an office representing the entire state.
He became chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation in 1989 and chairman of the full Transportation Committee in 2007.
Concern for family, faith
Oberstar married Jo Garlick in 1963, 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.
Despite his long years of public service, Oberstar always put his family first, said David Boe, who served as a staffer in Oberstar’s Duluth office beginning in 1998. Even after a difficult meeting in the district, when Oberstar got into the car he was quick to call his wife, “and he was a husband, not a congressman,” Boe said.
Oberstar also was a man of faith.
“He took his Catholic faith very seriously,” Grau said. “He was a Matthew 25 person,” he added, referring to the passage in which Jesus announced a division between those who feed the hungry, invite strangers in and clothe the naked and those who don’t.
“He had a warm spot in his heart for people who were having a hard time,” Grau said of Oberstar.
Sertich said he remembers being as young as 5 and hearing Oberstar’s booming voice ringing out in Chisholm’s St. Joseph’s Church.
Oberstar’s beliefs led him to maintain a lifelong opposition to abortion, even as that put him more at odds with his party, Grau said.
Abortion was the issue that separated Oberstar from Growe in the 1984 Senate nomination battle. But being liberal on economic issues and moderate to conservative on social issues made Oberstar a good fit for his district, Grau said.
Life after congress
The heavily Democratic district that first elected Oberstar in 1974 had changed more than most people realized by 2010, Grau said, as the district’s population dropped and areas closer to the Twin Cities were added.
It was a bad year for Democrats, and Cravaack ran an industrious campaign, he said.
“It could have been that the campaign didn’t take Cravaack as seriously as they should have,” Grau said.
Oberstar campaigned hard that year, Nolan said, but he mostly campaigned for other people.
“He forgot to tend to the home fires, and it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime, big-change elections,” Nolan said.
If Oberstar felt bitter after that election, “he got over that in a hurry,” Nolan said. “He was enjoying himself. He had much more time with his family.”
“Of course, it was a disappointment,” he said. “I would never describe him as being bitter.”
Oberstar continued to work on numerous projects, Klobuchar said, speaking on transportation issues and working on a wind-energy project in southern Minnesota. In 2011, a Great Lakes freighter was named in his honor; the Hon. James L. Oberstar is due back in the Twin Ports later this week.
Oberstar’s legacy should be remembered throughout the state and beyond, Klobuchar said.
“Every miner should remember his work to keep the mines open and make them safer,” she said. “Every American who bikes the Minnesota bike trails, hikes the Lake Superior trail and drives our national highways and bridges should remember Jim today.”
News Tribune reporters John Myers and Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.