As a news anchor, congressman and U.S. senator, Rod Grams was around some powerful people. Many of them recalled him fondly after it was announced on Wednesday that he had lost a long battle with colon cancer at age 65.
Some not-so-powerful people — those who were treated at the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture — will also remember the Republican senator as someone who took deep interest in their plight.
“We often engage with members of Congress on immigration issues our clients face with family reunification, and that’s a chance for people to put a face with an unthinkable, unspeakable issue like torture,” recalled Pete Dross, the CVT’s director of policy and development.
Grams was scheduled for a two-hour meeting, Dross recalled, but he stayed for four hours.
“He met with clients and heard their stories of difficult-to-listen-to details about what happened to them, and what it was like at CVT,” Dross said.
“One woman looked him in the eye and said, ‘They dug me up from my grave.’ ”
Grams asked what he could do. And then he did it. Along with another fondly remembered U.S. senator, Paul Wellstone, he picked up former Sen. David Durenberger’s push for passage of the Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998. The legislation, Dross said, “really began a process that led the United States to be the world’s largest donor to torture survivor rehabilitation.”
Dross thought that on this issue, the political was directly related to the personal. “Rod’s wife, Chris, and he understood this on several levels, and a large part of it was faith-based. The notion that one human being would do this to another was foreign to Rod’s values. And it was further reinforced by Rod’s understanding that one of the reasons people are tortured is because of religious freedom. He realized that torture is done by governments of the left and right, and [that it is] an attack on democracy as a fundamental value as well.”
As with his initial visit, Grams stuck around. He served on CVT’s board of directors from 2004 to 2007.
“He was a real friend of the CVT and torture survivors whose lives were changed and, in fact, saved by what he did in the Congress,” Dross said. “For Rod, it was an important part of his life, and not one that he really sought credit for. But he did it because he thought it was right.