Isanti County officials reflect on life of U.S. Rep. Oberstar

Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer, former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (center) and Bill Carlson, project director of Isanti Active Living by Design and chair of the bike-walk trail committee, stand on the wooden bridge that extends across the wetlands during the opening of the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail in July 2011. It is named Oberstar Overlook in honor of Oberstar’s work on the project. NEWS file photo

Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer, former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (center) and Bill Carlson, project director of Isanti Active Living by Design and chair of the bike-walk trail committee, stand on the wooden bridge that extends across the wetlands during the opening of the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail in July 2011. It is named Oberstar Overlook in honor of Oberstar’s work on the project. NEWS file photo

Isanti County, as well as the entire 8th Congressional District, is reflecting on the life of longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who died in his sleep May 3.

Oberstar, 79, died at his home in Potomac, Md., and a cause of death was not provided.

The veteran Democrat, born in Chisholm, Minn., served 18 terms from 1975 to 2011 — 36 of the 48-year congressional career as a representative from northern Minnesota.

Oberstar became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2006, which helped secure millions in federal funding for projects in his district.

In November 2010, Oberstar lost his seat in a close race to Rep. Chip Cravaack, but continued to work as a consultant on transportation safety.

Oberstar’s family said through a statement they are mourning his loss. Oberstar is survived by his wife, Jean, four children and eight grandchildren.

“Jim was a loving husband, father, grandfather, friend and brother,” the family said. “While we mourn the loss of a good man, we also celebrate his life and his service. We ask for your thoughts and prayers, and understanding, at this very difficult time.”

One of Oberstar’s most well-known projects in Isanti County was the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail, which opened in July 2011.

Isanti County Judge James Dehn, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (center) and Bob Bollenbeck with the East Central Regional Development Commission are pictured at a meeting in Cambridge in October 2008 where the University of Minnesota’s national Center of Excellence in Rural Safety announced a partnership with Isanti County to promote rural road safety, locally and nationally.

Isanti County Judge James Dehn, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (center) and Bob Bollenbeck with the East Central Regional Development Commission are pictured at a meeting in Cambridge in October 2008 where the University of Minnesota’s national Center of Excellence in Rural Safety announced a partnership with Isanti County to promote rural road safety, locally and nationally.

Oberstar was a key factor in securing federal funds for the trail that was more than 20 years in the making, and he attended the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Bill Carlson, project director of Isanti County Active Living by Design and chair of the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail Committee, said Oberstar will be missed.

“Congressman Oberstar was very proud of being able to help make Isanti County and all communities in the 8th District better places,” Carlson said. “He had all the tools for moving funds to his home district for many projects that needed additional help to complete. In Cambridge and Isanti County, he was instrumental in getting the Robert Wood Johnson Grant for Active Living by Design (he was on the Advisory Committee that decided which communities would receive the grants), then of course he secured most of the funding for completing the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail. He was wonderful to work with — always cheerful, enthusiastic about our projects, friendly and open with his opinions. He will be greatly missed. His legacy is assured here in Isanti County, as it will be throughout Minnesota, the U.S. and in Europe, as he represented the U.S. at the meetings of the European Ministers of Transportation.”

Oberstar was a proponent for transportation safety, and securing federal funds for local projects.

“Congressman Oberstar was a true advocate for transportation projects, traffic safety and community improvement in our area,” said Bob Bollenbeck, transportation planner and Toward Zero Deaths coordinator of the East Central Regional Development Commission. “He actually crafted major transportation funding bills which provided federal funding to many transportation projects including a Cambridge enhancement project to improve Main Street, the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail, transit hub funds for Heartland Express and several road projects in Isanti County. He was also responsible for major funding for other projects such as the North Branch Bridge on Highway 95 and numerous safety improvements for Highway 8 in Chisago County.”

Oberstar connected with the people he served.

East Central Regional Development Commission Director Bob Voss (right) presents a recognition award to U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010 for his work on public safety.

East Central Regional Development Commission Director Bob Voss (right) presents a recognition award to U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010 for his work on public safety.

“His commitment to traffic safety was also very evident. In 2008, he participated in a meeting in Cambridge, sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety, which focused on the accomplishments of Isanti County Safe Cab,” Bollenbeck said. “He also established the Safe Routes to School program which funds projects to promote more walking and biking opportunities for communities. Congressman Oberstar was a unique congressman with an ability to connect local people with the resources for significant improvement in the quality of the local community.”

Isanti County Judge James Dehn reflected on Oberstar’s involvement with the Isanti County Safe Cab program, which offers people a safe ride home from bars.

“Congressman Oberstar was a great benefactor of the Safe Cab program,” Dehn said. “I had the privilege of being at his retirement party at the Humphrey Institute, and during his speech he singled out the Isanti County Safe Cab program and thanked us for saving the lives of so many. That’s one of the things I’ll never forget, and he was such a wonderful guy. The first time I met him was during a meeting with him and Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer at her store in Cambridge, and we talked about the Safe Cab program. I often call our Safe Cab program a ‘model for rural America’ — that’s what Congressman Oberstar had called our program, and I’ll never forget that.”

Dehn said Oberstar cared about everyone he met.

“He was truly a friend to everyone, and he had an uncanny memory,” Dehn said. “If he met you once, he remembered you, and that is quite a special gift. He was truly a gentle giant and I’m glad I had the privilege of knowing him.”

At the beginning of the May 5 Cambridge City Council meeting, Mayor Marlys Palmer said she lost a close friend.

“Congressman Oberstar was a wonderful friend to the city of Cambridge and I will miss him very much,” Palmer said. “He was a personal friend of mine for almost as many years as I’ve been on City Council. I truly feel his life was exemplary and he was so intelligent and paid such attention to detail, but he was also a lot of fun to be around.”

Palmer said Oberstar, “is all around the city of Cambridge,” and noted his involvement with the Opportunity Boulevard road project, the extension of the runway at the Cambridge airport, the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail and the Opportunity Community Industrial Park.

“The Congressman visited us in Cambridge many times for meetings, to look at projects, and every once in a while he just stopped in because he was passing through,” Palmer said. “I can’t tell you how badly I felt when I heard he had passed. He loved his entire congressional district, and he always represented all of us very well.”

Isanti County Administrator Kevin VanHooser was impressed with Oberstar’s wealth of knowledge.

“My path crossed with Congressman Oberstar only once,” VanHooser said. “It was several years ago when he came to Cambridge to learn as much as he could about the meth epidemic in East Central Minnesota. We had some meetings with law enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration and human service professionals, ending the day with a community forum at the Braham High School. I remember being impressed about how much knowledge he possessed and on such varied topics. How could one person know so much?”

The city of Braham also appreciated Oberstar’s work.

“Congressman Oberstar will be remembered and appreciated for all his involvement with the transportation needs in Minnesota and the Active Living By Design program that provided funding toward walking trails in our communities,” said Braham Mayor Patricia Carlson.

Other statements from government officials include:

President Barack Obama:

“Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Jim Oberstar. Jim cared deeply about the people of Minnesota, devoting his 36 years of service to improving America’s infrastructure, creating opportunity for hardworking Minnesotans and building a strong economy for future generations of Americans. Jim will be deeply missed, and Michelle and I send our condolences to his wife, Jean, his children and grandchildren.”

Gov. Mark Dayton:

“Congressman Oberstar was a true champion for the people of the 8th District and for our entire state. 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, Jean, and his family.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar:

“Jim Oberstar was a mentor and a friend and a man of true purpose and grit. 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.

“His life journey took him from the hard scrabble mines of northern Minnesota to the chairmanship of one of the most powerful committees in Congress. He traveled the country and the world helping people, sharing knowledge and always speaking his mind, sometimes in French.

“Every miner should remember his work to keep the mines open and make them safer. Every American who bikes the Minnesota bike trails, hikes the Lake Superior trail and drives our national highways and bridges should remember Jim today. He was a treasure trove of facts and figures for every member of Congress.

“To the end he loved Jean and his family, his Slovenian heritage, his long bike rides, and anything and everything about transportation policy. We will miss him dearly.”

U.S. Sen. Al Franken:

“Minnesota and our nation lost a true giant. Jim Oberstar served the 8th District virtually his entire adult life, but his work went well beyond his congressional district, and the people of Minnesota and the entire country are better off for his service.

“By the time Jim rose to chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he knew more about transportation than anyone in this country. The first time I saw Jim in action as chairman, he was presiding over a hearing on high speed rail with witnesses from Japan and France, and several other countries, all of which — to our shame — are far ahead of us in high speed rail.

“When it came time for the chairman to ask his questions, I learned that Jim had piloted every one of these high speed trains, and Jim questioned the French witness in his own language in startlingly fluent French. It was a tour de force. I think that’s French.

“If Jim were asked to write this himself, he’d somehow segue to the history of infrastructure in this country, from the Erie Canal to rural broadband, then circle back to the Roman aqueducts and the use of slaves to build them and then move into a history of the labor movement, of which he was a fierce champion.

“Franni and I will miss Jim. We know all of you will as well. And we all are better people for having known him. And the 8th District is a much, much better place for his service.”

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan:

“Congressman Jim Oberstar’s passing over the weekend marked a terribly sad day for all of us. 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.

“The respect and affection Jim Oberstar’s colleagues in the Congress had for him was simply unparalleled. I will never forget the day he returned to visit the House floor last year. When he was spied walking into that historic place, Democrats and Republicans alike stood up and cheered for a great bipartisan leader and friend.

“Over the course of his long and distinguished service, Jim became chairman of the House Transportation Committee. With expertise unmatched in all the intricacies of programs and policies affecting hundreds of billions of dollars for highways, roads, bridges, railroads, airports, harbors and public transit systems, he still rode his bicycle to work every day.

“And no one worked harder than Jim Oberstar. He was always the first person in the office every morning — and after everyone else had left in the evening, there would still be a light on in Jim’s office.

“Jim Oberstar was my friend, my mentor and my hero. 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. We loved him dearly. We will miss him terribly. And we will do our best to carry on his great work.”

Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon:

“Congressman Oberstar was a tremendous servant and advocate for Northwestern Minnesota and for Minnesotans statewide. He was committed to safe transportation, public access to Minnesota’s beautiful parks and trails, and to bringing jobs to the people of Minnesota’s 8th District. My thoughts today are with Congressman Oberstar’s wife, Jean, his children and his grandchildren.”

DFL Chairman Ken Martin:

“The Minnesota DFL family is saddened to hear of the loss of former Congressman Jim Oberstar.

“A longtime public servant, Congressman Oberstar brought Minnesota’s Iron Range values of honesty, loyalty and hard work to Washington, D.C., for residents of the 8th Congressional District. Congressman Oberstar was one of the leading experts on transportation and aviation issues in the country. He held many leadership positions dealing with these issues and was internationally recognized for his expertise.

“Personally I was honored to have known Congressman Oberstar for many years and to work with him closely building our Party and electing Democrats to help the state of Minnesota. Minnesota lost a true legend and our thoughts are with his family at his time.”

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis:

“As we begin to reflect on the legacy of a lifetime in public service, we are especially grateful for Congressman Jim Oberstar’s unparalleled leadership in the area of transportation. He worked tirelessly to meet the transportation challenges facing Minnesota and our nation, and today our economy is stronger, our roads are safer, our communities work better for everyone, and our quality of life is forever improved, thanks to the leadership of Congressman Oberstar. His legacy will live on all around us — whether you ride a bus or ride a bike, take the freeway or take the red-eye.

“To us personally, Congressman Oberstar was always very generous with his time and attention, never hesitating to place a phone call or send an email to encourage, never failing to respond to a request for advice. We aspire to a life of public service like his: joy in your work, a love of learning, an appreciation for the humanities, a sense of the politically possible, a command of policy, knowing to use power on behalf of those who have little of their own, cultivating leadership among those who will follow and pick up where you leave off, and a vision for a better future. We mourn his loss, but know that he leaves an immense legacy for Minnesota, our country, and the world that will live on.

“We are honored to call Jim Oberstar a friend and mentor, and we will miss him dearly. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Oberstar family.”

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