Oberstar was known for his fierce and probing intellect, having a strong command of facts and details. Admirers joked that his wide-ranging intellect had a downside at political conventions, where he was prone to gusty speeches that dragged on.
Around Washington, Oberstar’s name came up as a possible replacement for U.S. secretary of transportation after Ray LaHood resigned the post in 2013.
“Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Jim Oberstar,” President Obama said in a statement Saturday. “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.”
Oberstar’s commitment to his Catholic faith did not lapse, even during the rigors of the campaign season. When Oberstar traveled through his district, he would make sure to attend mass at a local parish.
Often, the local priest would notice the congressman and ask him to give the homily. Each time, Oberstar would oblige.
Oberstar’s intellect sometimes paled to his sense of humor, which often was witnessed by Wayne Brandt, Oberstar’s campaign manager in the late 1970s.
After a service, Brandt said, Oberstar would tell him: “Well Wayne, for a good Lutheran boy like you, that service should hold you for a month.”
“Intellectually, he was [the] smartest person I have ever met, just in terms of raw, intellectual horsepower,” Brandt said.
Oberstar maintained close contact with old friends on the Iron Range, people far outside the political sphere.
When he was in town, he would sneak off with old high school friends to fish on Lake Kabetogama or Sturgeon Lake for walleyes and northern pike.
Oberstar was known to be only an average angler, but he loved it. He and his friends laughed a lot, competed to see who could catch the first fish each trip, and gave each other a good share of ribbing.
“Jim liked to talk a lot, so it was probably good he went into politics,” said Jon Frankovich, who was a year behind Oberstar at Chisholm High School. “Jim was a great friend to us all.”
Oberstar leaves a complex and towering legacy in the state, Klobuchar said.
“He has this capacity for being quite erudite, being intellectual, speaking French at fancy events and he had all this knowledge about transportation,” Klobuchar said. “But he was also, in the end, a miner’s kid.”
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 in a statement. “While we mourn the loss of a good man, we also celebrate his life and his service.”
Staff writer Allison Sherry contributed to this report.