James L. Oberstar is a 1956 summa cum laude graduate of St. Thomas.

School of Law establishes James L. Oberstar Professorship of Law and Public Policy

The St. Thomas School of Law has established the James L. Oberstar Professorship of Law and Public Policy to honor the Minnesota congressman and St. Thomas alumnus.

The professorship will be announced Tuesday, Oct. 7, at a private reception at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Oberstar is a 1956 summa cum laude graduate of St. Thomas. He is a founding member of its School of Law Board of Governors and has received the university’s Distinguished Alumnus Award (1998) and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree (2002).

Throughout his career, Oberstar has worked to advance public policy in vital areas such as transportation, development, public works, water resources and the environment. He has served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee since January 2007 and is regarded as one of Congress’ most influential members on transportation policy and funding issues.

“Congressman Oberstar’s long-term commitment to public policy and his strong ties to the university and the law school make the establishment of this professorship a natural fit,” said Dean Thomas Mengler. “The position will allow us to recruit and retain a nationally recognized scholar in law and public policy.”

The professorship will be funded by contributions from about 20 corporations and organizations affiliated with the transportation industry, with funds matched by the university.

Oberstar is a native of Chisholm, Minn., and is fond of telling how he received a $250 scholarship for his freshman year from a Slovenian organization on the Iron Range, where his father worked in the mines. Many years later, after his father’s death, Oberstar found an old financial passbook with scores of entries.

“Every payday, dad went to the home of the S.N.P.J. lodge treasurer and put 25 cents in an account,” Oberstar said. “That was the equivalent, then, of an hour’s wage in the depth of the Depression. He couldn’t afford to do that, but he did it. Those quarters added up, and they helped me to go to college.”

Oberstar excelled at St. Thomas and graduated with degrees in political science and French. He taught French and Creole in Haiti for three years before becoming a congressional aide to Rep. John Blatnik. When Blatnik retired, Oberstar won election to the seat and has represented the Eighth District since 1975. He is the longest-serving congressman in Minnesota history.

He chose to follow in Blatnik’s footsteps and serve on what now is known as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which he has chaired since the Democrats won control of the House in the 2006 elections. He is a past chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, where he became known as Mr. Aviation. He has been influential in shaping the reauthorization every six years of legislation that funds highways, bridges and mass transit, and will oversee that process in 2009.

To read more about Oberstar, see the St. Thomas magazine profile in the fall 2006 issue.