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Ex-senator Dallas Sams remembered

Dallas Sams would have liked the way his former Minnesota Senate colleagues mourned his death -- in 16 years as senator he worked to be bipartisan. And that is how legislators remembered him.

Sams, 54, died in a Twin Cities' hospital Monday after battling brain cancer more than two years.

Sams wasn't the stereotypical partisan politician.

He was known for working with lawmakers of both major political parties. He worked with urban, rural and suburban legislators. He dealt with the conservative right and the liberal left.

So it was no surprise that when he died Monday, the tears and hugs were universal.

Perhaps a photograph Sams signed last year said it best.

Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, clutched the picture shortly after Sams' death was announced. It showed the two of them smiling for the camera at a committee meeting they co-chaired last year.

"Bipartisanship work at its best," Sams had written in the upper left corner.

For the past several weeks, Ozment stayed with Sams overnight so Sams' wife, Mary Beth Davidson, could get some rest.

"He fully intended to conquer this thing," Ozment said.

Sams first learned of his cancer following a Feb. 7, 2005, seizure episode after he successfully shepherded an ethanol bill through the Senate. Doctors operated on his brain March 18 of that year, and Sams returned to the Senate, facing a standing ovation, just a few days later.

Despite lengthy chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the cancer returned. Still, Sams remained hopeful that he could beat it.

Sams, a Staples Democrat, remained active in the Senate last year, and campaigned for re-election, expecting to be able to serve four more years before losing.

In his 16 years serving communities such as Alexandria, Morris and Elbow Lake, Sams was known for supporting agriculture. He was chairman of committees dealing with agriculture, natural resources and health programs.

After losing his election last November, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration hired Sams in the Minnesota Agriculture Department's marketing division.

Sams graduated from Staples High School and the University of Minnesota. He was raised on a dairy farm and after college taught ag-related classes to high school and college students. He also operated a dairy farm.

The veteran senator was a pilot, and liked model airplanes and motorcycles. He also was an active Methodist, often signing and playing hymns on the piano, including sometimes when visiting nursing homes as part of his legislative travels.

Visitation will be 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at Staples High School gymnasium, with a funeral at 11 a.m. Saturday in the gym.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Beth Davidson, a Hennepin County lobbyist, as well as children Seth, Stacia, Jordan, Mitchell and Michael. His mother and three brothers also survive.

Decline hard to watch

Sams had been in failing health for weeks, and senators who called him a friend said his decline was difficult to follow.

"At first, I prayed that he would get well," said Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon. "After seeing him, I couldn't do that any more."

Langseth called Sams one of his four or five true Senate friends.

Senators learned of Sams' death Friday morning when Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, made the announcement while they met on the Senate floor.

Senators stood for a few moments of silence in respect for Sams. Tears and hugs followed.

Sams defeated an incumbent Republican to first take office 16 years ago and lost to a Republican last November.

The Republican who beat him, Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, said Sams was respected by Democrats and Republicans alike.

"He is truly going to be missed here," Ingebrigtsen said in a Capitol interview.

The two state representatives who serve Sam's district praised him, an indication of his bipartisan appeal, given the fact that one is a Democrat, the other a Republican.

"We were like brother and sister," Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, said of the man she met at a dairy meeting well before either got into politics.

Otremba and Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, shared a district with and admiration for Sams.

"Dallas did good things for rural Minnesota," Westrom said.

Sams often took moderate positions, sometimes opposed by his more liberal colleagues.

"He was a tempering role for the DFL in the Senate," Westrom said.

Sams had many Republican friends.

"Sen. Sams was my main ally on the DFL side," recalled Sen. Steve Dille, just minutes after his former colleague's death was announced.

Dille, R-Dassel, said he and Sams shared a "nearly identical" political philosophy, despite belonging to different parties. They worked together on a variety of agriculture issues, including feedlot legislation.

Their bipartisan ties got them in trouble in the mid-1990s, Dille said. They used local newspapers to praise one another on work during the previous legislative session. Dille penned a letter to the editor about Sams that appeared in his district. Sams did the same for Dille.

"We both got into trouble with our respective parties," Dille recalled lightly.

Another Republican, Sen. Dennis Frederickson of New Ulm, served on several House-Senate negotiating panels with Sams.

Frederickson, another long-serving senator, said Sams was known to accept a good idea regardless of whether it came from a Democrat or Republican.

"Dallas always looked to finding a solution," Frederick-son said. "It was always enjoyable working with him on a conference committee."

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said he considered Sams one of his closest friends in St. Paul. The two worked on agriculture issues and outdoors and conservation funding together.

"I can't help but feel sad about it," Vickerman said of Sams' death, adding his former colleague was "one of the most respected legislators."

Many legislators agreed with Otremba when asked about Sam's legacy: "He got things done. He was a likeable guy."

Pawlenty praised the former Democratic senator: "Minne-sota lost a true champion of the outdoors, agriculture and veterans today. Sen. Sams was loved by everyone around the Capitol for his caring nature, good humor and common sense."

"Dallas really understood rural health care," said Dennis Miley, administrator at Tri-County Hospital in Wadena. "He was instrumental in our getting reimbursement from the state medical assistance programs. He was also instrumental in getting reimbursement for our telemedicine program. He really championed our causes."

Miley recalled Sams stopping in his office unannounced just to check on how rural hospitals were faring. That sort of dedication earned Sams a distinguished service award from the Minnesota Hospital Association, Miley said.

In fact, Miley's association with the senator pre-dated his move into Sams' district 11 years ago.

"I had a working knowledge with him before I even moved here," Miley said, referring to his time working at a hospital in Waseca in southern Minnesota.

Holding the picture of the two of them, Ozment said Sams' pain in recent weeks "was tough to watch."

"He's no longer in pain...," Ozment said. "This is the ultimate healing."

State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story. Also contributing was Steve Schultz of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.