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Chasing Jim Oberstar

  • Blog Post by: Aaron Brown
  • May 4, 2014 - 11:49 AM

Earlier, I shared my personal and political analysis of the loss of former Rep. Jim Oberstar, the lion of northern Minnesota politics for almost four decades. Oberstar, 79, died in his sleep at his home in Maryland on May 3, 2014.

Here on the Iron Range, people's memories of Jim have been flowing in ever-growing streams since the news arrived Saturday morning. I'm fortunate enough to have a few, but there's one story I haven't put in writing yet.

In 2004, a friend and I joined Jim Oberstar's annual Mesabi Trail bike tour. An avid bicyclist who dedicated a great deal of his political capital to building bike paths, Oberstar liked to show off different stretches of his beloved hometown trail to media and constitutents. I was 24 and probably in the best shape of my life (not that this means much, but is nevertheless relevent to the story).

My friend and I showed up early to partake in the free snacks and sports drinks. We were dressed in shorts and t-shirts; prepared for a day of riding bike with a man pushing 70. Then Jim Oberstar showed up. Dressed head to toe in red, white and blue spandex and matching helmet, he smiled, shook hands and greeted the small crowd of bicyclists. We all saddled up on our bikes; mine with a rack on the back for carrying a cooler or novel, Oberstar's a 2,000-piece triumph of European design. And we were off. 

The first mile consisted of Oberstar pedaling leisurly, chatting with various people along the way. Frankly, it was a slow pace, so my friend and I took off. We would catch them at the after party, we thought.

The afternoon wore on. We rode as hard as we could. As the wind and hills near Buhl slowed us down, we took a short rest. And though we hadn't seen Oberstar for miles, suddenly there he was. "Hello, gentlemen," said the septuagenarian. We jumped back on our bikes. We really had planned to finish first.

For the last stretch of the ride, about two miles, we watched as Jim Oberstar became smaller, not larger, on the horizon. We chased him with all our might; to no avail. As we were greeted at the finish, my friend and I muttered about Oberstar's superior bike; but the reality that two men in their physical prime had been stone cold whipped by a very old congressman was an immovable burden on our sweating egos.

I had thought that Jim Oberstar would live to be 100; he was just so healthy, not just for a man his age, but for anyone, really. But just as we don't get to decide when voters are going to change their minds, we don't decide our lifespans either. What we can control, though, is the sharing of memories like this, and the legecy of a man who always remembered where he was from, as he shaped a larger world. 

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