I am one of the lucky ones who had an opportunity to work for U.S. Senator Jim Abdnor. There are so many things special about this person.
Back in 1980, this was a time of transition. I was starting college, and this was my first election to vote. Jim Abdnor was on the ballot, running an uphill battle for the Senate. During this election, it was the first time I met him, but it was only in a brief campaign stop. Hit the fast forward button to the summer of 1983, and this was when I was fortunate to be selected for an internship in his U.S. Senate office. Hit the button one more time, and I am working for him full-time after college and a campaign experience.
The point in this is I grew up on a small farm and had no political connections. My parents dutifully voted every election, but that was it. The odds of me working for a U.S. Senator were smaller than the seeds we planted. It happened, though, because of the way Senator Jim approached life.
Senator Jim had a part of his life philosophy based in his belief in youth. He gave college graduates a chance to take on roles of a lifetime, setting them up to grab hold of the opportunities presented. Part of his thinking may have been a belief in what individuals can do if given a chance but part may have had to do with how this energized him in the work he did for the state of South Dakota and for our country.
It was more than about individuals though. For Senator Jim, he treated us as his family. He accepted us for who we were, challenged us to do more, argued when necessary, and celebrated to bring us together. You knew you were in for an intense conversation when he started it by “Let me tell you one thing, friend.” It was like being called by all three of your names – first, middle, and last – by your parents. For Senator Jim, it was just “friend” that brought the seriousness of the situation to heart.
Senator Jim treated the state as his family, too. He seemed at times to know everyone’s name. There were challenging times throughout his term, yet he always tried to balance doing the right things for his constituents while doing the right things for our nation. In doing this, there were tough decisions, and he made them. It was done with not only a love of country but a love of the people within it. He always had the servant leadership approach.
And, this was a key reason why Senator Jim was different. He represented all what is good with public service. Today, we focus too much on purity of beliefs rather than how we behave or solve problems. While Senator Jim had beliefs, he also knew what it meant to be a public servant and a servant leader. Reaching a hand across the aisle to solve a national problem was what leaders needed to do in order to make the better decisions for the future generation.
Throughout his Senate career and beyond, one his signature elements worn with every tie was a Black Hills Gold horseshoe tie-tack. Although Senator Jim always worked hard, I think it reminded him of two things. One was his roots in South Dakota, and the second was a little luck always helps. Ray Kroc was said “Luck is a dividend of sweat.” Senator Jim embraced both.
In so many ways, he built a path of service, well enriched with examples of firm challenges, resolute focus, guiding encouragement, and a lending hand.
My life would not have been worse, necessarily, without having worked for Senator Jim, but I do know it would have been different. Taking a chance on me delivered an opportunity to jump on a path to do things I would only have dreamed of back on our family farm. When I look back, Senator Jim enabled the dreams of so many people who, today, are legislators, policy makers, health care workers, teachers, and good citizens.
A few years ago, my family stopped to get together with him and have lunch. He worked the restaurant as if he was still representing them. What it was really about is what others did for him; they invigorated his spirit.
I am so glad my two sons had an opportunity to meet him. Although they may not have realized how special it was, it let me give them a glimpse into the person who gave me a life opportunity. I can only pray they will have a “Senator Jim” in their life to give them a chance of a lifetime when they are ready.
With Senator Jim passing away, it has brought a rush of gratitude and memories. He lived life fully, rarely stopping to even sleep it seemed. I am not sure what lit his spiritual fire so many years ago, but it led him brightly in his career from his family farm in Kennebec, South Dakota, to the state Capitol, and to our nation’s Capitol. Senator Jim served so many, so well.
Rest in peace, Senator Jim. Well done. It is now up to us to pay it forward.