On Nov. 5, Minnesota and our country lost another great man in U.S. Representative Jim Ramstad. A true statesman and man of great faith, Ramstad joins former colleagues Elijah Cummings and John Lewis as three pillars of the House of Representatives whose historic contributions will endure for generations to come.
While my adult life has largely found me aligned with the Democratic Party, I have long admired elected officials in the Dave Durenberger and Arne Carlson tradition; and I always voted for my friend, Jim Ramstad. And I mean always! One of Jim’s hallmark characteristics, of course, was his legendary ability to work effectively with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Regardless of your position on climate change, imagine the value Jim would have added in today’s political climate.
I’m an optimist. With focus, we will get past the coronavirus and our economic challenges. But, frankly, I tend to be even more concerned about our environment, especially as it concerns climate changes, and the persistent state of race relations and the systemic inequities they provoke. Both of these issues were important components of Ramstad’s congressional portfolio. Jim has not served in Congress since 2009, but imagine what it would be like to have Ramstad at full strength helping to lead Minnesota’s congressional delegation and the House of Representatives, overall, in these existential areas.
I recently asked my friend Greg Rye, Jim’s closest friend, to share some thoughts. Here is what he said. “The day I met Jim Ramstad my life was changed forever ... personally and professionally. There was not a meaningful event where Jim didn’t show up in a BIG way. I have been struck by the number of people who have said, since his passing, ‘The world needs more Jim Ramstads.’ I say that starts with me. I will work hard for the rest of my life to model what Jim taught me. How to be a fair, kind, humble, genuine, real and authentic BEST friend! Jim will live in me!” For anyone who knows Greg it is hard to imagine him becoming an even better man — but the goal he describes does indeed constitute a good example of the kind of commitment to the common good that Jim engendered.
Many years ago, in 1996 and 1998, I was encouraged by a representative of the DFL Party in House District 44B to seek elected office. I declined; citing family and professional responsibilities. Full disclosure, though, every day during even year election seasons, my 494 commute found me looking up at a billboard featuring Ramstad and then State Rep. Ron Abrams. And, thus, every day, I would have to concede to myself, “Good luck with that. I can’t beat that dynamic duo.” Frankly, Judge Abrams was always a formidable candidate under any circumstance, but side-by-side with Ramstad, forget about it.
Over the past 13 years, in getting to know Jim better, and talking with him — and more importantly, learning from him by observing his behavior — he became someone who helped me to consolidate my perspective on leadership. That is to say, it became clear to me that decency, humility and ethicality top any “qualities of character” lists meant to define the most important ingredients of great leaders. Jim possessed these vital qualities, and many more.
And speaking of Jim’s humility, I always found it humorous — but, I have to admit somewhat gratifying — that Jim, of all people, despite his myriad accomplishments and the rarified space he occupied — would refer to me as “Mr. President,” simply because of a professional role I played, before retirement, in a nonprofit institution. And he was being sincere. Jim’s emotional presence always ensured that the person right in front of him knew she or he mattered to him. Once again, his decency, humility and ethicality touched everyone with whom he came in contact.
When his death was announced, it was reported that Jim was always very candid about his alcoholism and recovery. In fact, his recovery was an essential plank in the foundation upon which he based his work with others over the past four decades. It is an understatement to say that he bettered the lives of countless others — to say nothing of the collective life of his beloved country.
Mark Twain famously said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” As for the second day, Jim could have proudly told you both date and time. As more and more of us hunker down with our loved ones and especially the young people in our lives — that is, as we chart our respective courses in an environment that privileges all of us with “homeschooling” responsibilities; and what a true privilege those responsibilities constitute — we would be wise to acknowledge the “teachable moment” before us and the fact that our loved ones are watching closely. More to the point, we would be well-served to embrace the arc of Jim’s life as an example worth following.
Rest In Peace, Jim.
Dan Haugen, of Plymouth, holds a doctorate in social work. Now retired, he volunteers in a number of community organizations, including Wayzata Public Schools and Youthprise.