Ask an Iron Range Democrat about Jim Oberstar and you're more likely to hear about the Congressman's personal touch than political accomplishments.
"I had a 20 minute meeting with Jim Oberstar, and it was two hours long," said Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown, who won a trip to Washington when he was 7 years-old. "He took me all the places where regular people aren't supposed to go, and I was just some kid from a trailer house on the Iron Range."
At one time Oberstar himself was just some kid from a tiny house on the Iron Range. His dad was an underground iron ore miner during an era of often brutal working conditions. But from those humblest of beginnings, he became Minnesota's longest-serving Congressman, conversant in six languages, renowned for his intellect and rambling oratory.
"That is I think the story that I take away, how you can come from a shack on the Iron Range and become a Francophone congressman, the leading expert on transportation infrastructure in the country," said Brown.
Oberstar died early Saturday morning. He was 79. Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday in Potomac, Maryland.
Oberstar studied in Europe, taught in Haiti and worked in Washington for a decade for his predecessor in the House, John Blatnik, before running for Congress. But he never forgot his roots, says former state representative Tom Rukavina, who now works for current 8th District DFL Congressman Rick Nolan.
"He remembered the Range history, and it was a tough history, of fighting the mining industry, and his father being one of the first to organize the steelworkers and never forgetting that the union movement grew the middle class of America," said Rukavina.
Indeed, Oberstar's father carried the Steelworker's Union card number one, says longtime friend Shelly Mategko.
"Jim was very, very proud of that. Card number one was his dad, Louis Oberstar," Mategko said.
Oberstar rose to become chairman of the House transportation comittee. It's hard to drive or bike around northern Minnesota without a tire touching a project he helped fund. In 2011 a Lake Superior freighter was renamed in Oberstar's honor. But Mategko says more significant was the name he replaced on the ship, Charles M. Beeghly.
"The name that was on there before was the president of a steel company! So now you have, years later, this kid who grew up in poverty on the Iron Range, the son of an iron ore miner, boots the name of this steel company executive off the boat," said Mategko.
DFLers who attended the 8th District convention over the weekend said it was serendipitous Oberstar died the same day they gathered in Nashwauk, just down the road from his hometown of Chisholm.
"I've never seen this motly group of people quiet for so long in my life than the moment of silence they gave our Congressman," said delegate Joel Heller of Duluth, who volunteered for Oberstar when he was just 16. He remembers the Congressman launching into a speech when the teenager showed off a new car.
"We'd go outside, and he'd kick the damn tires, he'd check to make sure the car was made in the USA, and then it would be all right," Heller said.
After serving 18 terms, Oberstar suffered a surprising defeat to Chip Cravaack in 2010. But Shelly Mategko says he never really stopped representing the Iron Range.
"Right up until last week, he was still calling around the communities asking, are you getting what you need, can I help you with this, how are your bike trails coming along, he never stopped," Mategko said. "He never left office, maybe formally he did, but in his mind, he was still there."