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Oberstar remembered at Duluth memorial service

Brady Slater

Forum News Service

DULUTH — It’s been almost two months since Minnesotans awoke to hear the news that Jim Oberstar died in his sleep.

Friday offered “some closure,” said one Duluth resident to another as attendees filtered into a ballroom at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center for the second of three state memorial services honoring the legendary congressman. The final memorial took place later in the day in Oberstar’s hometown of Chisolm.

“The idea of harnessing resources,” Oberstar said during a video presentation that started the service, “was ingrained in me.”

Nobody harnessed resources any better.

“His fingerprints are on every federally funded transportation project in the country,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., one of a host of dignitaries to speak at the event.

Together in their speeches, they took measure of a man who was among the rarest of the rare. He was a great man who accomplished as much while remaining a good man, said Duluth Mayor Don Ness.

Ness recalled being an Oberstar staff member — an “Oberstaffer” — and carting the congressman around in Ness’ Ford Escort. Oberstar regaled a young Ness on policy and lawmaking.

“I was an audience of one,” Ness said. “He loved that I was curious.”

Oberstar owed his effectiveness, in part, to his own curiosity. Growing up the son of a miner, Oberstar never forgot his roots. One speaker said Oberstar’s heart was in the 8th District, and his soul was always on the Iron Range. But his imagination knew no bounds. He loved opera. He understood fitness before it was vogue. He knew six languages, including Creole. When Klobuchar, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Oberstar landed in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010, only Oberstar among them could speak directly to the native Haitians.

Oberstar’s academic understanding of so many topics helped to make him an ally across the aisles. He famously made long speeches both on the congressional floor and in private and casual conversations. He was eager to dispense knowledge, so much that he could have filled his own line of Oberstar Encyclopedias. But it could be intimidating, too, for other legislators.

“What can you say,” said U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. “He was just a guy who inspires all of us. But he humbles all of us, too.”

Rep. Rick Nolan now holds the seat Oberstar held for a state record 36 consecutive years (from 1974 to 2011) as the representative from Minnesota’s 8th District. Nolan enjoyed a cup of coffee with Oberstar a couple of nights before his death. He remembered patting Oberstar on the shoulder and said he could feel the strength in a man who made a habit of doing 100 pushups a day.

“He was passionate,” Nolan said. “He was a believer in working people and people working together.”

Few ever saw Oberstar build to anger, but Melanie Benjamin said she did. Benjamin is the chairwoman of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, one of five Anishinaabe bands Oberstar represented from the district. She said Oberstar knew their history, followed their politics and knew the names of the people with whom he interacted. He helped to reverse the third-world poverty, the poor schools and health care that had become endemic of reservations. He fought for federal road-building funding that states had for so long accepted, and then denied their Native American tribes. He was a friend, said Benjamin.

“He hated racism,” she said. “Nothing angered him more than a local politician who pandered to racism.”

A native drum group began the memorial, singing and drumming as the people filtered in to pay their final respects. When they were done, a video started with Oberstar describing his upbringing.

“I saw that fragile line between having a job and maybe bankruptcy,” he said. “It was ever present.”

In a Washington, D.C., climate that, Klobuchar said, “thinks of this job as scoring political points,” Oberstar stood tall as an old-fashioned lawmaker with a Renaissance man’s appeal, as comfortable in the Aurora parade as he was the French Embassy.

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