REGIONAL – Former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who died in his sleep early Saturday at his Maryland home, was hailed by his colleagues as a model public servant and leader on transportation issues. Oberstar, who served for 36 years as the Eighth District’s representative, was the state’s longest-serving congressman. He was 79 years old.
“Jim was a giant of a man who devoted himself to serving others — most especially as a voice and champion for the forgotten and left behind in our society,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who now serves as the district’s representative. “The respect and affection Jim Oberstar’s colleagues in Congress had for him was simply unparalleled.”
“Jim Oberstar was a mentor and a friend and a man of true purpose and grit,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “His purpose? To make life better for the people of northern Minnesota and our world. His method? Knowing all the facts and never giving up just like the people he represented.”
As chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Oberstar steered millions of federal dollars into highway, bridge and airport projects across his district and the state.
“Every time you drive down a road in northeastern Minnesota, you can thank Jim Oberstar,” said state Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who called Oberstar “a good friend and a grand leader.”
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Oberstar had a real passion for the whole Arrowhead Region. “I think about him every time I’ve driving up Highway 53, which will be four lanes from Cook to Virginia soon. That never would have happened without Oberstar.”
“His impacts are almost indescribable,” said former state House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, a DFLer from Oberstar’s hometown of Chisholm. “You can’t travel down a road or a bridge or an airport or a trail in northeaster nMinnesota without his fingerprint on it.”
Bob Anderson, who chairs the Highway 53 Task Force, credited Oberstar for major federal investments in road, bridge and airport pro-jects.
“We wouldn’t have the airport we have in Koochiching County without Jim Oberstar,” said Anderson, who said he once testified alongside Oberstar at a House Transportation Committee on the value of the essential air service program.
“He left a legacy bigger than life,” said state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. “He was a champion of the people who delivered for all the people of Minnesota and one of the most intelligent lawmakers in Congress,” said Tomassoni.
Gov. Mark Dayton issued a statement praising Oberstar as a “true champion” for the people of Minnesota. “He worked tirelessly to bring jobs, economic growth and a better quality of life to his constituents. I extend my deepest condolences to his wife and his family.”
Oberstar was born on Sept. 10, 1934, in Chisholm, and still owned the original family home in Chisholm. His father, Louis, was an iron ore miner and the first card-carrying member of the United Steelworkers on the Iron Range.
Oberstar graduated from Chisholm High School in 1952, and went on to the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1956.
He continued his education overseas, earning a master’s degree in European studies from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, in 1957 and also studied at the Université Laval in Sainte-Foy, Quebec, Canada, and at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
He spent four years as a civilian language teacher in the Marine Corps, teaching English to Haitian military personnel and French to Marine officers.
He served on the staff of U.S. Rep. John Blatnik for 12 years, rising to chief of staff, and later succeeded Blatnik as the district’s representative. He first took office on Jan. 3, 1975. He served 18 consecutive terms before being unseated by Republican Chip Cravaack in 2010. Cravaack served one term before being replaced by Democrat Rick Nolan in 2012.
An internationally-recognized expert on aviation and aviation safety, Oberstar served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during his entire time in the House, eventually chairing the committee. He also was a member of the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Tourism and held leadership positions on a number of other committees and task forces, including co-chairing the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus.
Although his work on developing the state’s infrastructure overshadowed many of his other achievements, Oberstar was also instrumental in educational reform, creation of jobs and protection of the environment.
Anderson cited Oberstar’s efforts on behalf of the forestry industry to secure wood for forest products and the congressman was credited with convincing Cirrus Aircraft to relocate its operations in Duluth.
In addition, Oberstar was a strong supporter of the Head Start program and also backed the American Association of University Women, a leading voice in promoting education and equality for women and girls.
He championed the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, and voted to pass the Energy and Environmental Law Amendments, which were aimed at establishing a program to regulate greenhouse gases.
An avid cyclist, he biked to work and traveled hundreds of miles on area bike trails.
Oberstar also served as a mentor to a number of Iron Range politicians, including Sertich and Duluth Mayor Don Ness.
Despite his stature on the Beltway, Oberstar never forgot his roots in northern Minnesota and enjoyed sneaking away with friends to fish on Lake Kabetogama. He also brought a strong work ethic, instilled by his family, to Washington, D.C.
“He was always the first person in the office every morning,” said Nolan. “And after everyone else had left in the evening, there would still be a light on in Jim’s office.”
“Our nation is truly a better, more decent, more compassionate place for every day Jim served so selflessly with such honor, dignity and good humor,” concluded Nolan. “We loved him dearly. We will miss him terribly. And we will do our best to carry on his great work.”