Jim Oberstar, a 1956 St. Thomas alumnus who served for 36 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, died in his sleep Saturday in his Maryland home. He was 79.

Oberstar became one of the most powerful members of Congress on transportation issues during his tenure as the longest-serving congressman in Minnesota history, and was chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2007 to 2010. He was defeated in 2010 in his re-election bid.

Jim Oberstar

Oberstar poses with President Dennis Dease and Oberstar’s Alumnus Magnus award during a class of 1956 reunion in 2006. (Photo by Mike Ekern ’02)

Born and raised the son of a miner in Chisholm on Minnesota’s Iron Range, Oberstar graduated summa cum laude from St. Thomas with majors in political science and French. (Read The Scroll for stories about Oberstar’s years as a student.)

After receiving a master’s degree in European Studies from the College of Europe in Belgium, he taught French and Creole in Haiti for three years. He returned to the United States in 1963 to work as an aide to Rep. John Blatnik in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, and succeeded Blatnik when he retired in 1975.

Oberstar developed a deep interest in transportation issues, earning the nickname of Mr. Aviation as chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, and his seniority allowed him to obtain federal funds for dozens of road, bridge and mass transit projects in northeastern Minnesota. When the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007, he quickly put together a $250 million package to build a replacement.

“His impacts are almost indescribable,” former Minnesota House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, a fellow Chisholm native, said Sunday in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “You can’t travel down a road, or a bridge, or an airport or a trail in northeastern Minnesota without his fingerprint on it.”

Dennis McGrann, an alumnus with three degrees from St. Thomas, called Oberstar “an icon” who intensely studied issues and developed sound public policy positions.

“Few members of Congress had more knowledge than Jim on transportation,” said McGrann, director of federal government relations for Lockridge Grindal Nauen, a Minneapolis-based law firm. “Republicans and Democrats constantly sought his advice, and he always worked across party lines.”

Oberstar realized a career-long dream when he became chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2007 after Democrats won control of the House.

“I’d like to be chairman,” he told St. Thomas magazine in a fall 2006 profile. “As chair you don’t get everything you want, but you get to set the agenda and initiate the action. There is so much to be done in oversight – to make sure agencies effectively carry out the laws that we have enacted.”

Oberstar remained involved with St. Thomas throughout his career and often attended events on campus. He supported the university’s efforts to receive $15.5 million in federal funds to help construct the Frey Science and Engineering Center, which opened in 1997, and he was a founding member of the School of Law Board of Governors. His youngest daughter, Annie, received a St. Thomas bachelor’s degree in 1995.

Jim Oberstar

Berg, right, Oberstar pose for a photo during Berg’s investiture as the inaugural James L. Oberstar Professor of Law and Public Policy in 2011. (Photo by Thomas Whisenand)

The St. Thomas Alumni Association conferred its Distinguished Alumnus Award on Oberstar in 1998, and he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from St. Thomas in 2002. The School of Law established the James L. Oberstar Professorship in Law and Public Policy, which Tom Berg has held since 2011.

“St. Thomas was a special place for Jim,” McGrann said. “It opened his eyes to a broader world and exposed him to things that he had not encountered as a boy. It was a real life-changing experience for him, and he always was grateful.”

Berg paid tribute to Oberstar in a Mirror of Justice blog as one who “believed in the capacity of government to increase people’s opportunities to realize their dreams.” Berg also cited how Oberstar, an opponent of abortion, insisted on protecting the vulnerable as “an essential component of the common good.”

“It is not sufficient to be opposed to abortion,” Oberstar said in a 2005 address at a St. Thomas law symposium. “We must also support pre- and post-natal care of mother and child; we must advocate for education, health care, jobs with a livable wage, housing and food for the needy; oppose the death penalty; and resist unjust war.”

Oberstar’s first wife, Jo, died in 1991. His survivors include his second wife, Jean, four children from his first marriage, two stepchildren and eight grandchildren.

A funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 8, at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, 9200 Kentsdale Drive, Potomac, Md. It has not been determined if a memorial service will be held in Minnesota.