Potomac, Md. – Minnesota’s longest serving member of Congress, former Rep. Jim Oberstar, was remembered Thursday as a man with an insatiable zeal for cellphone pictures of his grandkids, American infrastructure projects, foreign languages, bicycling — and as someone whose 36 years in office inspired respect among people as diverse as the former transportation secretary under President George W. Bush and the current French ambassador.
Oberstar was 79 when he died in his sleep last weekend in this leafy Washington suburb. He represented his home state in the U.S. House of Representatives until he lost his 8th Congressional District seat in a 2010 upset.
“Not much good came out of the 2010 election,” said his son, Ted Link-Oberstar at the service, but “one of the blessings is we had more time with Dad.”
The funeral in Oberstar’s home Catholic church was attended by roughly 500 family members, friends and dignitaries, including the French ambassador, all of Minnesota’s House Democrats, both its U.S. senators and a former transportation secretary.
Oberstar’s wife, Jean, sat in the same pew her husband faithfully warmed at 7 a.m. every Sunday, the Rev. Raymond Kemp said.
Tales from Oberstar’s well-touted career on Capitol Hill were punctuated by short, emotional speeches from his four children, who spoke of the congressman’s devotion to being home for dinner when they were young and, when they grew up, his willingness to fly across the country to help mend a broken heart or see a new grandchild.
Noelle Tower said she wished her dad was there to help her get through speaking in front of so many people because, “he would know exactly what to say.
“He was my rock,” she said.
Another daughter, Monica Weber, said that while he may be remembered for his ability to talk about transportation and infrastructure and speak flawless French, she will remember his “tender heart.”
“Dad was happiest when he was with his children and grandchildren,” she said.
Oberstar’s life story, from getting elected in 1974 as a Watergate-era Democrat representing the state’s Iron Range to becoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — one of the most powerful perches in Congress — was brought to life with heartfelt stories of his crackling personality.
Sen. Al Franken, who once told a constituent Oberstar was the reason he didn’t believe in Congressional term limits, said if the congressman were still alive, he would use the opportunity to tell the gathered crowd the history of American infrastructure, starting with the Erie Canal and ending with broadband.
“Sometimes Jim had a tendency to go on and on,” Franken said, eliciting laughs, particularly from the family. “But it was because he believed that everyone was as curious about the world as he was. And he was almost always wrong about that.”
Oberstar is widely credited with getting thousands of infrastructure projects approved in Congress, and for inserting bike safety measures and bike trails in transportation funding bills as early as the 1990s. Colleagues often admired how Oberstar would remember even small projects in congressional districts across the country.
Norman Mineta, transportation secretary under President George W. Bush, said he sat next to Oberstar for 22 years on the House infrastructure committee.
“He was such a good listener. He used to say, ‘I hear what you’re thinking,’ ” Mineta said, his voice breaking. “We all learned from him. I loved this man.”
Oberstar’s passion for and commitment to the French language was woven through stories from family, colleagues and even Francois Delattre, the French ambassador, who said at the service that Oberstar spoke better French than he did. Weekly, Oberstar helped his exasperated granddaughter with her French homework, prompting her once to threaten to study sign language instead. He routinely broke into French phrases in places where no one could understand him. He even blended two passions by bicycling part of the Tour de France route.
“He was one of those rare people who was just as comfortable in the Aurora parade in khakis and tennis shoes as he was at the French Embassy,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “He may have spoken French at the embassy, but he also spoke it in the Aurora parade, even though no one understood him.”
A montage of family photos showed Oberstar — beaming smile, sparkling blue eyes and shock of white hair — clutching grandchildren, walking a daughter down the aisle and vacationing with his wife.
One blown-up image captured Oberstar on a bike, wearing a helmet, sunglasses and a Fat Tire beer jersey, and grinning ear to ear.