Saturday, May 3, 2014

Remembering Jim Oberstar

“My father told me when I graduated from high school, ‘You have two choices. You can work in the mines, or go to college to create for yourself a better life… And it better be one that helps other people.” ~Congressman Jim Oberstar

One of my favorite freelance writing assignments I ever had was in 1988 when I got tapped to interview Congressman James Oberstar, along with his opponent, for People & Politics, a publication designed to spotlight the Minnesota candidates in that year’s congressional election. The son of an iron ore miner, Oberstar was raised in Chisholm just a few miles from the largest strip mine in the world.

A lot of people don’t remember that these Northern Minnesota mines produced ninety percent of the ore that became steel for weapons, battleships, planes, jeeps, shells, in World War II. You might say that Minnesota’s mines were the unsung heroes in stopping the Germans and the Japanese.

This region was also a hotbed of Communist activity, the headquarters and heartbeat of the Communist Party U.S.A. back in time. The region attracted Europe’s disenfranchised. Immigrants from all over in coming to America were ushered to this remote icebox for the purpose of settling these untamed, barren spaces 130 years ago. Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians… they felt quite comfortable here with its bone-chilling winters making them feel right at home.

It was against this backdrop, or out of this soup, that Jim Oberstar emerged. His father was a strong union man, a leader in his own right, and Jim early on was involved with the Democrat-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party here, handing out pamphlets, doing the volunteer legwork needed to keep his father’s party in power.

I met Jim at the City Hall in Chisholm and after conducting the interview he invited me home to meet his mom and daughters. His wife was in D.C., so at the house I talked with the other ladies while he called her on the phone. His mom told stories about Jim’s dad. They’d just finished Sunday dinner, so she was clearing the table as we talked. The one that stands out most vividly had to do with the car they had purchased. They were the first in the neighborhood to own a car. Problem was, they did not know about antifreeze at the time and that first severe winter cracked the block so it never ran again. Nevertheless, it was such a nice looking car that they parked it in the front yard, the only family on the block to own one.

For me, there was much to like about Jim Oberstar. He was down to earth, came across as a regular guy. And he didn't walk lockstep with the party. In fact he was out of step with the Twin Cities dems whose values he did not entirely share as a blue collar Catholic.

He began his life as an idealist and intended to become a missionary, possibly to Haiti. C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen were his favorite writers, both thoroughly religious. But fate turned his path to Washington, and it was there he became a quiet force for three decades where he ultimately chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a logical role because of Duluth is one of the largest inland ports in the world, and also has an international airport along with its air national guard base.

His interest in Haiti must have been partially connected to his fluency speaking French. As we talked in '88 I learned that he was routinely interviewed by Canadian media to interpret issues for the French-speaking Quebec peoples. He also shared his vision for the European Union, which came to pass five years later.

One thing that I personally appreciated about Jim was the feeling I had that his office door was always open and that he was accessible to his constituents. When my daughter went to Washington, D.C. for a conference while in high school she came away impressed with the manner in which he broke down the nuances of a complex piece of gun legislation. Still later, when she was unable to get a work visa for a job she'd acquired in England, Jim gave us a hand and went to bat for us.

Like most politicians Congressman Oberstar made regular appearances for ground breaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies. Usually they corresponded with his values. In 2010 we crossed paths at Carlton Bike Rental where he spoke briefly about biking and the extensive bike trails that have emerged in Minnesota for the betterment of our region. Every cause needs a champion and the Congressman was one such proponent for the funding of these trails.

I got the impression he enjoyed this service to his country. When I asked how he ended up with a career in politics he quoted Robert Louis Stevenson, "The greatest adventures in life are those we do not go forth to seek."

Thank you, Jim, for your spirit, your service and your example.

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