Senator James Abdnor: Rest in Peace

Long-time readers of the Dakota War College know that I?ve written memorial pieces for Governor Mickelson, Roland Dolly, Bill Dougherty, Jeremiah Murphy and Bill Janklow. This is one I have known for weeks was coming and many times I tried to write it but I couldn?t. Today, my old boss kicked me in the A_ _leaving me no choice. I write this with the heaviest of hearts and a bucket of tears.

This morning, Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 11:15 a.m. Senator James Abdnor left this world peacefully after a long struggle with Alzheimer?s surrounded by family and friends. It was truly a Holy death.

This memorial could focus on all this man did for me, especially as a young man. But that legacy is personal and similar stories will soon be told throughout the state by the hundreds who loved Jim Abdnor, the man. Or I could talk about his personal vocation dedicated to young people as teacher, coach, mentor, friend that continued up until just a few years ago with his regular attendance of American Legion Post 22 baseball games and hosting players to his home in Florida.

But for most of you, your interest is his public legacy, a legacy that began and ended before many DWC readers cared about politics.

Jim Abdnor began his political life first doing the grunt work helping his friends get elected, then taking a leadership role in both state and national Young Republicans until he launched his own career in 1956 by being elected State Senator where he was appointed as Chairman of Appropriations as a Freshman, elected Lt. Governor in 1968, Congress in 1972 and the US Senate in 1980. For 30 years, Jim Abdnor was a pre-eminent political leader in South Dakota.

In many ways, Jim was an unlikely politician. He had a speech impediment and a humility that made it nearly impossible for him to ever toot his own horn. More than once I heard him give others credit for a success whose efforts and influence was collectively significantly less than Jim?s.

And, his humility was real. I recall a time he was at town meeting filled with veterans, probably around 1982 after he had defeated Senator McGovern. The Master of Ceremonies referred to Jim as a WWII veteran which was not in the Senate office provided bio (he was given a medical discharge during WWII). Jim said to the MC before we left he would appreciate if he just stuck to the introduction provided. When we got in the car, I asked the Senator what that was about. Jim said, ?George McGovern and many in that room are heroes. I can?t be compared to them.?

Senator Abdnor was a legislator?s legislator. His fair-mindedness and diligence to find solutions was so well-known from his time in the US House that he was appointed chairman of three sub-committees his first day as a Senator, more than any other freshman Senator, and two years later appointed Chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, again unique in his class to become Chairman of a full committee.

Let me tell you three anecdotes which evidence the personal respect of his peers.

First, Senator Paul Simon (professorial liberal Democrat from Illinois who Jim met while they both were Lt. Governors) was vehemently opposed to an Abdnor amendment scheduled for debate later that evening. Hours before, Senator Simon purposely sat with Jim on the floor as other business was discussed. I happened to be in and out of the conversation as I had matters under my purview later to be debated. Each time I came by, it was obvious I was interrupting two friends. When the matter came up, Jim gave his speech and Senator Simon soon rose and was quite forceful in his opposition. After the vote, Senator Simon made a point to come sit with Jim on the Republican side to make it clear how much he valued Jim?s friendship. There difference was political.

Second, Senator Paul Tsongas (liberal Democrat from Massachusetts but who too had a speech impediment) sat often with Jim during late night debates. Their relationship wasn?t as personal as with Senator Simon. It was more intellectual where they would sit and privately argue their differences, laughing at each other?s ?wrong? ideas. One of those nights I was sitting among them waiting for one of my issues to come up and I?ll never forget what Tsongas said to Jim after a Democrat made a rather inane argument. ?Jim, we should form our own party where we just pledge to not say any nonsense on the Senate floor.? Jim might have been a man of few words but when he spoke, they listened, everyone.

Third, the fact Jim had the respect of his GOP colleagues is evidenced by the committee leadership positions they entrusted to him. However, their personal affection was so much deeper. While I could recount hundreds of examples from his GOP colleagues, I think the story is best evidenced when I was in the office with the staff of Hawaii Democrat Senator Matsunaga and the other Hawaii Senator Inouye to support a small state/rural matter. Hawaii was unique because it was a small state they were very urban in perspective. I thought I was going to fail until Senator Matsunaga came in the room. He asked why I was there, I told him, and he asked, ?Is this important to Jim?? When I said it was, he said ?I will support it and talk to Dan (Inouye).? Their support proved to be critical.

Jim as a boss was second to none. Once Tsongas said to me ?You have a great man for a boss.? But, we already knew it. Jim was one of the few members who tried to make every one of the Abdnor staff softball games, he regularly invited staff, including interns, to socialize at his condominium. Two stories that bring it to light were shared over the last few days as we sat vigil with Jim.

Mike Vehle told the story about the time he was being bullied by the Ford White House on a matter and hung up the phone on the Ford official who was quite high up. When Mike told the Congressman he had screwed up and hung up on this official, Jim said it was ok and followed up with the guy making it clear Mike spoke for him. Few members would so publicly back a staffer even when the person admitted it was a mistake.

Dick Doubrava told the story about the time he was told by the Senator to return a call to the White House for Jim. The person he called said, ?Staff doesn?t call me back. I want to talk to the Senator.? When Dick relayed the response to Senator Abdnor, Jim immediately called this person and said ?If you want to do business with me, you talk to my staff. They speak for me!? and hung up the phone. The next day, the White House liaison?s were in our office profusely apologizing to both the Senator and Dick.

I don?t know if they will name buildings or roads after Senator Abdnor. And in some ways, he may be forgotten by history as his legacy is ?Abdnor-esque-? quiet, effective, yet meaningful without flair.
South Dakota was well-served by this humble farmer, teacher, and coach from the little town of Kennebec for 30 years. He has protégé?s that learned at his knee like US Senator John Thune, State legislators Mike Vehle, Lee Schoenbeck, and others like Vern Larson, Dusty Johnson, Mike Rounds, and many others.

If someone writes a history book of South Dakota that includes the last half of the 20th Century, Jim Abdnor, George McGovern, and Bill Janklow will get the most pages. However, Jim?s section will be the most illuminating as many learn of Jim?s significance for the first time as this humble man from Kennebec couldn?t take credit in life.

Personal sidebar: Jim Abdnor is much more than a politician who I agreed with and supported, mentor and former boss. Like hundreds of others, especially young people, Jim took a sincere personal interest in my life. He involved himself in my family like an uncle. More importantly, he drove, advised, chastised, and loved me like a son and I returned the love as if he was my father. Many of our times together were joyful and sometimes they were rocky just as we all have with our parents. I disappointed him more than once. Now that Jim is gone from this world, I have a hole in my heart that nobody will ever fill but it is hole I am happy to keep open until I hear him say to me again ?Let me tell you something friend.?

By the mercy of God, may the soul of Senator Jim Abdnor Rest in Peace.

Attached is ?U.S. Senator James Abdnor: A Life? written by Jon Lauck. Enjoy!

U.S. Senator James Abdnor A Life

7 Replies to “Senator James Abdnor: Rest in Peace”

  1. Lee Schoenbeck

    great recollection of the Senator.
    ?Let me tell you something friend.? – great recall on that one. It was usually the prelude to a polite parental-like redirection.

    1. Troy Jones Post author

      Sometimes not so polite. 🙂 But, it definitely was a “redirection.” I remember one time a constituent-supporter was telling the Senator what he should do. Jim listened for a few minutes. When I heard him say “Let me tell you something friend,” I knew it was going to be rough and I was right.

      After the Senator moved on, I thought I should go and see if I could do anything to smooth things over. The guy made it clear my overture was unnecessary when he said, “I don’t agree with him but he tells it straight. I just love Jim Abdnor.”

      I recall he had a tone his colleagues recognized too. I happened to be at an Environment & Public Works committee or subcommittee meeting. Why I was there I don’t know. Maybe waiting to talk to the Senator.

      Anyway, Senator Moynihan said something that incensed Jim and he leaned forward, interrupting Moynihan and said forcefully “Mr. Chairman.” The Chairman let Moynihan continue who finished his remarks by turning to Senator Abdnor, looking over the top of his glasses and said, “I apologize to the Senator from South Dakota.”

      Moynihan knew he was going to get it and the apology didn’t mollify Jim until he was done saying what he had to say when he said, “Apology accepted.” The room burst into laughter including both Senators.

      Despite his humble and kind personality, he had a resolution that when it was unleashed it was daunting. Crossing Jim Abdnor was a place nobody wanted to go. If I remember right, when the matter that day came to a vote, the Chairman suggested a voice vote so Senator Moynihan wouldn’t be embarrassed as it was clear Jim was going to prevail.

      As a staffer, I recall when making a presentation/recommendation to the Senator you knew half way in if you were going to be successful. If you were astute, you just slowly quit talking, gracefully conceding “defeat” for if you continued to the end, you were going to hear “Let me tell you something friend.” I wasn’t always astute as I seemed to get it alot.

  2. JERRY VOGELER

    I traveled to Washington, D.C. at a young age representing the water interest of the James River valley. While many Senators would assign work to staff, Senator Abdnor was a workhorse who was willing to roll up his sleaves and get the job done. He was not doing so to build a name for himself, but rather to get the job done for the good citizens of the James River Valley.

    Even after Senator Abdnor was no longer in the Senate, high ranking agency officials, Senators, Congressmen, and staff would comment how much they liked Senator Abdnor. They would also give examples of him sitting down with committee staff to write legislation and then gaining the support of the United States Senate for his legislation.

    Yes, before Senator Abdnor left the Senate, he passed meaningful legislation to to help restore the James River. Yet, I think Senator Abdnor’s greatest accomplishment was the role model he provided to many young citizens.

    He respected others and he was respected. Today, I am not as impressed at what he got accomplished, but the dignity he demonstrated in getting great things accomplished.

  3. Anonymous

    I remember at the 2010 state GOP convention John Thune was speaking and a frail Jim Abdnor was attending (I believe he was sitting at Thune’s table). John began talking about Abdnor and there was a pause like he was thinking but then he started to sniffle and speak again. With a shaky voice and tears in his eyes Senator John Thune described what Abdnor meant to him.

    It was a touching moment and I’d never seen John show very much emotion in public before. I’m sure John knew that Abdnor wasn’t in the greatest health at that time.

    It solidified what Abdnor meant to him. I took a lot away from that moment.

  4. Cory Skluzak

    Very, very well said Troy. I know how difficult this must be for you. And I greatly enjoy reading the other comments. Let me add this about Senators Abdnor and McGovern: They were quite similar in make-up and, of course, quite dissimilar in ideology. Both were products of a simple upbringing and were truly South Dakota sons. Both were principled, genuine and honest. South Dakota should be proud to claim both regardless of the partisan aspect.

    Here’s what I posted at the CaringBridge website regarding Senator Jim:

    Loyal, genuine, honest, caring, exemplary character, hard-working, down-to earth: all true and accurate descriptions of Sen. Jim. He was a wonderful example and role model and a great mentor of young South Dakotans.

    I had the great privilege to know the Senator and serve him as a Senatorial interm in 1983. He was a wonderful mentor and I was honored that he considered me his friend. Growing up in the next county over (Brule) I was surprised how much he knew about me and my family before I even got to know him well. But then he was such a “networker” and had already made inquiries of Clyde (RIP) and Eleanor Saukerson, Denny Yeaton, Judge Ron Miller and other Brule County folks as well as Senator Homer Harding.

    I cherished my memories of the 2 D.C. summers (in 1984, Senator Jim arranged to get me an accounting job at the US Customs Service). I remember dining with him in the Senate Dining Room several times where he would flag down other Senators to proudly introduce them to his fellow South Dakotans. (example: “Rudy, (Sen. Boschwitz) here’s a kid from around Mitchell – you have a lumber yard there!”) I remember him leaning on Sen. Dole to send Patrick Ewing (who was a Dole intern) down so that we could all have our pictures taken with him. I remember him taking all of us interns down to the Maryland shore for a weekend vacation and going to watch “The Natural” movie; “a very predictable plot, but it was about baseball!” he said. I have a great picture of Sen. Jim smoking a stogie on our condo patio in Arlington that I shared with Tom Undlin, Steve Censky and Jeanene Kroetch. So many wonderful memories.

    I remember meeting him in Colorado Springs in 1987 or 1988 when he was the SBA head. What a wonderful memory he had of people. Sen. Jim was always intensely interested in what you were up to and seldom talked about himself. How unusual is that in a person; let alone a politician?

  5. Anonymous

    Too bad todays politicians spend more time being negative than working things out with dignity for all. Many politicians have taught those who were to follow well but have not so good students. Look at those in service to the USA today……………..