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House of Representatives, Great Lakes fleet honor Oberstar

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar speaks with Federal Judge Gerald Heaney at the annual Labor Day picnic in Duluth in September 2002. Oberstar died early Saturday, May 3, 2014, at age 79. DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE/Bob King

DULUTH — The U.S. House of Representatives honored former Rep. Jim Oberstar on Tuesday evening, observing a moment of silence after the day’s business was conducted on the chamber floor.

Oberstar, who died in his sleep early Saturday, was Minnesota’s longest-serving congressman, elected to 18 consecutive terms in Congress and serving through 2010. He was 79 years old.

Oberstar served northeastern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat from Crosby who now serves in the seat Oberstar once held, said formal House tributes to Oberstar will be made May 19 on the House floor, also after the day’s final vote. Both the moment of silence and tributes will be shown on C-Span, Nolan’s office said.

Minnesota legislators and others who knew Oberstar will gather Thursday morning to exchange stories and celebrate his life.

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, announced in the state House on Tuesday that because state lawmakers are working long hours as the Legislature nears its final adjournment for the year and they cannot fly to the longtime congressman’s funeral, she is hosting an hourlong Oberstar memorial event beginning at 7:30 a.m. Thursday in the State Office Building across from the state Capitol.

Also on Tuesday, officials of the U.S.-flagged Great Lakes carriers said they will fly their freighters’ flags at half-mast Thursday in Oberstar’s honor.

“Great Lakes shipping has lost its greatest friend and staunchest supporter,” James Weakley, president of Lake Carriers’ Association, said in a statement released Tuesday. “He was at the forefront of every effort to make waterborne commerce on the Lakes and Seaway safer and more efficient.  When the U.S. Coast Guard proposed to retire its most powerful icebreaker on the Lakes, the Mackinaw, without replacement, Oberstar demanded the cutter remain in service until a replacement was built.’’

The new Mackinaw was launched in 2006.

Weakley also credited Oberstar for pushing hard for expansion of the lock system at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Weakley noted, however, that funding for the expansion hasn’t yet been approved.

It’s not the first time Great Lakes shipping interests have honored Oberstar.

In May 2011, Interlake Steamship Co. renamed one of its lakers the Hon. James L. Oberstar. The 710-foot freighter is a frequent visitor to the ports at Duluth and Superior, Wis.

“Interlake and all U.S.-flag operators on the Lakes owed Congressman Oberstar a tremendous debt of gratitude, and it was our pleasure to place his name on the bow and stern of a Great Lakes freighter,” said James R. Barker, Interlake chairman. “It is so fitting that his name graces the hull, for just as he fought for American workers for decades, this ship will for decades to come deliver Minnesota iron ore to steel mills throughout the Great Lakes basin and keep America strong.”

The Lake Carriers’ Association represents 17 American companies that operate 57 U.S.-flag vessels on the Great Lakes.

Oberstar’s private wake is set for this evening in Washington. His funeral is set for Thursday morning in Potomac, Md.