By Sarah Strunk on May 11, 2014
This past weekend, the healthy communities movement lost one of its most beloved leaders, Congressman James Oberstar. Congressman Oberstar represented the 8th Congressional District of Minnesota from 1975 to 2011 and for many years served as chairman and ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
I first met Mr. Oberstar in early 2002 during a visit to his office in Washington, DC. Rich Killingsworth, founding director of Active Living By Design (ALBD), and I were on a mission to persuade him to join our inaugural national advisory committee. This was my maiden voyage to Capitol Hill. I had never been in the office of a member of Congress, let alone convinced one to dedicate precious time and energy to an as-yet unformed, untested program. My fears were immediately put to rest. Mr. Oberstar greeted us with his customary exuberance and a warm handshake, listening intently as we described our vision for this five-year grant program. Without hesitation, he enthusiastically signed on as his assistant grimaced in the background: one more commitment. Yet, as we were to learn over the next several years, like all of the others, this wasn’t a commitment he would take lightly.
Mr. Oberstar was an important and influential advisor in our early days, even traveling to Chapel Hill during a rare ice storm for our first national advisory committee meeting in December 2002. As plans changed to accommodate weather-related delays, he remained unflappable. To the contrary, he regaled us with inspiring stories from his life as a servant leader, peppered with inspiring quotes in other languages, always making a connection to our vision of healthy communities rife with safe, accessible opportunities for active transportation for all. As the two-day meeting progressed, we lost power and, along with it, lighting and heat. Airport closures ensued due to the build-up of ice on the runways. We considered ending the meeting early, renting a bus and finishing our meeting en route to the Atlanta airport, or making other adjustments that would allow participants to return home on time. The group, led by Mr. Oberstar, agreed to stay for the meeting. In fact, Mr. Oberstar was the last to return home–more than 24 hours after originally planned.
I share this story because I believe it epitomizes Mr. Oberstar’s commitment to staying the course, even as it turned unpredictable, cold and dark. His ability to forge friendships in the face of adversity was epic. The tenacity, optimism and passion for helping others succeed that served him so well over his 36-year career in Congress made a significant impact on ALBD and our work. Years after most would have retired their jerseys for a life of leisure, Mr. Oberstar could be found knocking off a quick 100 miler on his road bike, often with a peloton of riders decades younger in tow.
Mr. Oberstar’s DNA is part of so many things we at ALBD hold dear: the strategic direction for our first grant program, which set the stage for our work as a larger organization; the transformative power of active engagement between advocates and policy makers; state funding for bicycle and pedestrian coordinators; the vision, championing and federal funding for Safe Routes to School programs and infrastructure; and so much more.
Today and every day, ALBD honors Mr. Oberstar for his incredible legacy.