Jim Oberstar loved to tell stories about growing up on the Iron Range – and at the College of St. Thomas – and how they provided the foundation for an extraordinarily successful career in Congress.
The skinny kid from Chisholm, who died Saturday, may not have seemed a likely candidate for college in the early 1950s. His dad was a miner and his mom worked in a shirt factory, and they told their three sons the best way to get ahead in life was to get a good education.
At a St. Thomas luncheon years ago, Oberstar recalled how he went through his dad’s belongings after his death and found an old bank passbook with scores of entries.
“Every payday, dad went to the home of the S.N.P.J. (Slovenian) lodge treasurer and put 25 cents in an account,” Oberstar said. “That was the equivalent, then, of an hour’s wage in the depth of the Depression. He couldn’t afford to do that, but he did it. Those quarters added up, and they helped me go to college.”
Oberstar enrolled at St. Thomas in 1953, lived in Ireland Hall and majored in political science and French. He developed a love of French, which he spoke fluently throughout his life, from professor Herbert Willging, and he credited professors such as G.W.C. Ross in political science and James McGraw in English for instilling intellectual discipline.
During an English constitutional history class, “Dr. Ross said that we would memorize the succession of English kings,” Oberstar recalled in a St. Thomas magazine profile in 2006. “I told him, ‘I’m not so good at memorization.’ He said, ‘Well, young man, you’ll need to be.’ ”
McGraw told students they would learn how to write simple declarative sentences, and Oberstar was stunned: “I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I can write. I got A’s in English.’ I got my first paper back – all torn apart. We spent three weeks writing sentences and a month writing paragraphs. Only at the end of the semester were we able to write an essay.”
Oberstar remembered those lessons well. He graduated summa cum laude in 1956, won a scholarship to the College of Europe in Belgium and received a master’s degree in European Studies. After teaching French and Creole in Haiti, he became an aide to Rep. John Blatnik, who represented northeastern Minnesota in Congress, and succeeded Blatnik in 1975.
Over the next 36 years, Oberstar earned a reputation as one of the most powerful and influential members of Congress on transportation issues. He became the senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and in 2007 he realized his dream of serving as the committee’s chair.
I had interviewed Oberstar the previous year for the St. Thomas magazine profile, spending a day with him and observing a half-dozen meetings with constituent groups. We sat in chairs arranged in a circle in his Rayburn Building office and he listened closely to what each person had to say.
The meetings were impressive in how they showcased his common touch. Here was a leader who shaped national transportation legislation and helped to determine projects that would receive billions of dollars in federal funding, but he also was willing to take time every day to listen to people on any and all issues.
“Now you see why I like my job?” he asked after the last visitor departed that day. "It’s very stimulating. I don’t choose who comes to see me – they do. They are carrying out a provision of the Constitution – the right to see their congressman.”
And he never forgot his roots. He laughed loudly and slapped his knee when asked if he ever wondered what an Iron Range kid – and the son of a miner who saved for a college education 25 cents at a time – was doing in the nation’s capital.
“I think about it every day!” he said. “When the ambassador of China comes here to talk with me, I’m saying to myself, ‘This guy represents 1.3 billion people. I come from Chisholm, population 5,000 people. It’s extraordinary.’
“Yes, I think about it every day.”