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Jim Abdnor, former congressman and senator, dies at 89

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Jim Abdnor had a way with words.

Which is odd, since he never made a big, important speech. None of his words are likely to be carved in stone somewhere. He wasn't known for making grand statements that moved the masses.

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In addition, he had a slight speech impediment that kept him from making a lot of showy appearances in public.

Still, Jim Abdnor, who never married, loved to talk to the people of South Dakota, the farmers, the housewives, the college kids, the ballplayers he coached and cheered and the businesspeople he visited as he crossed the state time and time again. And he also loved to listen, and learn from them, his friends and relatives said.

"His family really was South Dakota," said state Sen. Mike Vehle, of Mitchell, a longtime friend and former congressional aide to Abdnor.

Abdnor, 89, died Wednesday morning at the Dougherty Hospice in Sioux Falls. The hospice was named for Bill Dougherty, who followed Abdnor as South Dakota's lieutenant governor in 1971.

In his final days, as Alzheimer's, age and other health problems took their toll, the people who knew Jim Abdnor best, his family, friends and former staff members, remembered a quietly driven, ambitious man who was resolute in his conservative political beliefs.

There's a good reason he was in public office for 30 years in South Dakota. Abdnor, a Republican who won six elections to state office, liked government and knew how to win elections.

"He loved people and he remembered their names. He was friends with them," Vehle said. "Working a crowd with him wasn't really work. He really enjoyed it. He loved it ... he loved it."

Sen. John Thune met Abdnor when he was a teenager and worked for him in the 1980s. Abdnor later boosted Thune's political fortunes and served as an adviser and friend over the years.

"Everything I know about politics that is good I learned from Jim Abdnor," Thune said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "He was a hardworking and effective fighter for South Dakota, and one of the most decent and genuine people to ever hold elective office.

"I came to know Jim through our mutual love of sports and have been blessed to have him as a mentor and a role model. Kimberley and I and our daughters, who Jim treated as his own, will always remember Jim's friendship and mentoring and his boundless love for South Dakota. He was a mentor and a friend and I will miss him greatly."

Abdnor served one term as a U.S. senator, from 1981 to 1987, four terms as a congressman from 1973 to 1981, and one term as a lieutenant governor from 1969 to 1971. From 1987 to 1989, he was the administrator of the federal Small Business Administration, a post he was named to by President Reagan in the wake of his loss in the 1986 Senate race.

Vehle met Abdnor when Vehle was a kid helping out at the elevator in Reliance, which Vehle's dad managed. Abdnor was a state senator then, but he was also a farmer/rancher and had to drop off his grain.

"He was dressed in either overalls or coveralls, but usually overalls," Vehle said.

While waiting for his turn at the elevator, Abdnor would get into political discussions and would lose track of why he came to the elevator, Vehle said with a soft laugh. His dad would tell him to move Abdnor's truck ahead in line while the state senator continued talking.

Vehle was a recent University of South Dakota graduate in 1972 and was planning a move to California to look for a job in banking. But before he left he called Abdnor and asked if he needed some help in the campaign for the Second District U.S. House seat.

"That's how I got started working for Jim," Vehle said. "After he won I was going to get ready to go to California again."

But Abdnor asked Vehle and Owen Ambur, another recent college graduate, to help sort resumes. After they offered suggestions on who Abdnor should hire, he had a question for them.

"He asked us, 'You guys want to go to D.C.?' " Vehle said.

Soon, the two young men were in the nation's capital, learning how to drive Abdnor from event to event -- Abdnor was a notoriously bad driver, Vehle said -- and figuring out the political ropes as well. That included tangling with an ornery White House aide during the Nixon years, but Vehle said Abdnor backed him up that time and in other situations as well.

A series of young aides took on that role over the years. They drove with Abdnor, worked with him and even lived with him.

"He had a revolving door," Vehle said. "He wanted to visit."

He said Abdnor rarely spent much time at home. He wanted to get out and be around people, to talk and shake hands.

Former state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, said when he lived with him, Abdnor would watch TV while riding an exercise bike, arguing with South Dakota native Tom Brokaw as Brokaw read the news. Abdnor was constantly reading newspapers and magazines, clipping out items he found interesting or useful.

Schoenbeck recalls having the place to himself when Abdnor went back to South Dakota for the weekend. Upon his return, the aide would get chewed out for leaving dirty dishes in the sink and having the house in poor condition.

"He'd say, 'I'm a U.S. senator and I'm doing your dishes!' " Schoenbeck recalled with a laugh.

During his time home in South Dakota, Abdnor would fill his pockets with slips of paper and, at the office Monday morning, he would set his staff to work.

"He'd write stuff down on scraps of paper and stuff them in his pocket 'This guy, he's got this problem, we've got to check on this,' " Abdnor would tell them, Schoenbeck recalled.

Abdnor underwent heart bypass surgery in the 1970s, but that didn't slow him down, Schoenbeck said.

The staff worked hard, but they also bonded, Schoenbeck said. A newsletter for former Abdnor staffers is issued twice a year, and they have held at least three reunions, he said.

"The Lil' Abdnors," they were dubbed in a comic nod to the once-popular comic strip "Lil' Abner."

Vehle said he recalls Abdnor doing his homework in a car as Vehle drove him across the state.

"He'd read. He'd have articles he'd rip and read," he said. "He'd say, 'Did you read this? Did you read this article in the Post? Here, read this.' "

Once, they traveled to Maine for a camping trip before a trip to South Dakota.

"I wake up in the middle of the night, and Jim's gone," Vehle said. "He's in there in the front seat with the flashlight and the dome light on, and he's signing letters. And he just didn't sign them, he wrote a note."

Abdnor had a habit of chewing on a cigar, Vehle said, and he didn't turn down the offer of a drink.

"He'd have a drink or two, and he enjoyed it," Vehl said. "He enjoyed camaraderie. Jim Abdnor, he loved people."

Son of homesteaders

Abdnor was born in Kennebec on Feb. 13, 1923, to Samuel J. and Mary (Wehby) Abdnor, who were immigrant Lebanese homesteaders. He attended both grade school and high school in Kennebec. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1942 to 1943.

Abdnor graduated from the University of Nebraska with a bachelor of arts degree in business administration in 1945 and was a member and president of the Sigma Chi fraternity and member of the University of Nebraska Student Council.

Vehle said Abdnor also tried to make the Cornhusker football team, but his walk-on effort ended after a few bruising practices with the team.

After graduation, he returned to Kennebec, where he owned a farm-ranch and also taught school. An avid sports fan his entire life, Abdnor coached for more than 20 years for the Lyman County Junior League and Teener baseball teams.

His first steps into politics were as chairman of the South Dakota Young Republicans and farm chairman of the National Young Republicans. He served as first assistant chief clerk of the South Dakota House of Representatives in 1951, 1953 and 1955 before deciding to run for the state Senate.

During his first term as a state senator, he was named chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which still amazes Schoenbeck, a legislative veteran. He and Vehle agree that Abdnor's talent for making friends and getting along with people was a key to his success in life.

"He enjoyed just being out there and talking to people," Vehle said. "I think a testament to his political ability was, he was not a polished public speaker. He was an excellent statesman in that way."

Abdnor represented Lyman County in the South Dakota Senate for 12 years and served as president pro tempore of the Senate from 1965 to 1966. In 1968, he was elected lieutenant governor and served with Gov. Frank Farrar, of Britton.

Abdnor lost in his first bid for Congress, as he was beaten by Fred D. Brady, of Spearfish, in the 1970 Republican primary for the state's Second District House.

But in 1972, Abdnor gained the GOP nomination and easily defeated Democrat Pat McKeaver for the Second District seat. He breezed to re-elections in 1974, 1976 and 1978.

By 1979, some Republicans were urging him to run against Sen. George McGovern, the nationally known liberal and Mitchell native who was seeking a fourth term.

Lee Schoenbeck, later a state senator from Watertown, was a young aide to Abdnor then. He said at first, Abdnor was reluctant to take on McGovern. He said they knew McGovern had an experienced campaign team and would raise more than $1 million.

"He didn't think he could raise that much," Schoenbeck said. "He worried about that."

But in the end, Schoenbeck recalled, they raised about $1.6 million, nearly equaling McGovern's campaign war chest. A poll that showed Abdnor with a 17-point lead finally convinced him to run, he said.

In addition, Abdnor knew South Dakota was about to lose a congressional seat after the 1980 census, Schoenbeck said. If he didn't run against McGovern in 1980, he would face then-Rep. Tom Daschle in a showdown for the state's sole House seat in 1982.

Abdnor ran an aggressive race and pushed his staff hard, Schoenbeck said. While they worked long hours, so did Abdnor. He campaigned across the state and found support wherever he went.

College campuses turned out to be a surprising source of strength, Schoenbeck said. Abdnor was warmly greeted at the University of South Dakota and during South Dakota State University's Hobo Day and other events. On Election Day, he claimed every voting precinct near a campus, Schoenbeck said.

Abdnor's 14 years in Congress weren't marked by a stack of bills with his name on them. Schoenbeck, who worked for him from 1979 to 1981, said Abdnor was more interested in working as part of a team instead of grabbing credit and headlines.

That wasn't true with other politicians then and now, he said.

In the Senate, Abdnor was named chairman of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water Resources, chairman of the Joint Economic Subcommittee on Agriculture and Transportation, and the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government.

He continued to return to South Dakota virtually every weekend, and he attended events across the state. Schoenbeck said Abdnor didn't just make brief appearances, either. When he went to the State B tournament, he watched the games, cheered on his teams and chatted with fans old and young.

Vehle said Abdnor loved to provide people with tours of Washington, D.C.

"When people would come, he said, 'Let's go to the Capitol for bean soup,' " a legendary dish at the Senate Dining Room.

"And he knew everyone. He would introduce you to the elevator operator," Vehle said. "He'd know the waiters by name. He knew everybody."

One time when they were eating lunch there, Pat Moynihan, a flamboyant and highly erudite Democrat who served three terms representing New York, came by and they chatted at length, Vehle said. It might seem like an odd coupling, but they were very friendly, he said.

Enjoyed retirement

After he left office, Abdnor spent most of his time in South Dakota. He bought a home in Rapid City after leaving the Senate, and maintained the family home in Kennebec. Later, he had an apartment in Sioux Falls before moving into a retirement village there. Last year, he was moved into a unit for people dealing with Alzheimer's.

He also had a winter home in Fort Meyers, Fla.

After Abdnor left politics behind, he played a lot of golf, Vehle said.

"He always joked, 'I'm no great golfer,' but he enjoyed it," Vehle said. "Jim was somebody no matter what he did, he worked on it very, very hard."

Schoenbeck said he last played golf with Abdnor a few years ago. After one short drive, he let loose a string of swear words and trudged off after the ball, refusing an offer to ride in a cart.

Vehle said he remained a devoted baseball fan, cheering on the Minnesota Twins and local youth teams, including Rapid City Legion Post 22.

"He lived for that team," Schoenbeck said.

"In those years while living in Rapid before moving to Sioux Falls, there was nothing more important to him than going to Post 22 Legion baseball ... home games, away games, rode on the team bus or with parents, wherever," said his niece, Leanne "Lea" Abdnor.

Abdnor never married or had children, but Vehle and Schoenbeck both said he never expressed any regret about that.

"His family was South Dakota and he was very close to all his nieces and nephews," Vehle said. "I don't think he had any regrets. I don't think he had any time for regrets."

Schoenbeck said the people who worked for Abdnor on his campaigns and in his offices remained close to him for the rest of his life.

"He had kids. It was us," he said. "That was his family, period."

His brother Joe and sister Marina had children and they have been devoted to their uncle, Vehle said, and he was to them.

"Uncle Jim was the same away from the political stage as he was when he was on it," Lea Abdnor said. "One of the incredible things about it was that he didn't change based on who he was with."

He was also very supportive, helpful and generous with his nieces and nephews, she said. All of them were sent to Kennebec each summer to live with "Uncle Jim" and his parents. His sister Marina from California usually came and stayed there with her kids, too.

Abdnor spent summer days on a tractor, and like every other South Dakota farmer, came to the house coated in the soil he was working in.

"He'd shower, we'd eat grandma's incredible food, and then he'd take us all out for fun, often to Jerry's Cafe in Kennebec to play pinball or somewhere else," Lea Abdnor said. "He brought the tractor into town so he could drive us around town as each of us took a turn riding on his lap. And he brought his horse Danny into town so we could ride him. He was always looking out for each of us -- not just in Kennebec but throughout our whole lives."

His nephew, who is also named Jim Abdnor, also offered fond memories.

"He seemed to love spending time with family and as such would pay for mass get-togethers for all the nieces and nephews and their families," he said. "Yellowstone was a great time of exploring and staying up in the Black Hills allowed a lot of time for family fun and sightseeing. And he always was a very enthusiastic, if not too stylish dancer. And he was a great laugher, when he wasn't catching the occasional nap."

Abdnor's niece Suzie Ganz Condon said her uncle loved to play and enjoy life when the work was completed.

"Uncle Jim was the fun-loving member of our family. Uncle Jim was a hard-working farmer and would come in after a long day out in the field with one thing in mind -- he wanted to be sure we were going to do something fun," she said.

"He would take us to Kings Motel to play pinball, out to Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone dipped in chocolate with sprinkles, baseball in the backyard, lighting off fireworks, going to rodeos, attending a powwow down on the reservation, horseback riding, tractor riding, and much, much more. Uncle Jim was just like us, a child at heart. He was often seen at a function as the last one standing on the dance floor."

"Uncle Jim was so very generous with everyone," Condon said. "When we had his 80th birthday and asked people to send him letters it was overwhelming to read how many people said, 'He was like a father to me,' 'He helped put me through college,' 'He helped me buy my first car.'"

Condon said Abdnor enjoyed looking out at the beautiful nature around his Rapid City home and watching deer come drink from his fountain.

"He would also enjoy the special scenery of Florida from the beautiful shell beaches to the occasional alligator in his backyard," she said. "But most of all, he loved his time in Kennebec. Kennebec was and will always be his home."

Abdnor's longtime friend and attorney, Vance Goldammer, said Abdnor earned his reputation as a good and decent man.

"South Dakota has never had a harder-working or more honest elected official than Jim Abdnor," Goldammer said. "More important, thousands of South Dakotans today lost a cherished friend who always saw the best in each of us. He will be greatly missed."

Even though he was out of office and never considered another run for office, Abdnor kept to the same schedule he had maintained for years, according to his friends.

"Jim was traveling all over the state all the time," Schoenbeck said. "It was like Jim was running for office until they took his car keys away from him."

Abdnor took pride in the people who had worked for him as they moved ahead in their own careers. But one former aide was his pride and joy.

"His son of sons was John Thune," Schoenbeck said. "John Thune's political career really, really became Jim Abdnor's political career."

On Election Night 2004, when Thune unseated Daschle for the Senate seat that Abdnor had once held, the old senator was in the spotlight. He wore a broad grin.

Politicians praise him

Abdnor is the second prominent South Dakota Republican politician to die this year.

Bill Janklow, who served four terms as governor, one term as attorney general and part of a term in Congress, died in January of brain cancer. The two men ran against each other in the 1986 Republican primary for the Senate seat Abdnor held.

Abdnor won. It was the only defeat in Janklow's 30-year political career.

Politicians in office now and those who have served in the past offered respectful tributes to Abdnor.

McGovern said he always got along well with Abdnor, and the two former rivals attended a Sioux Falls Pheasants game together last summer.

"He and I had a friendly relationship," McGovern said. "We were opponents briefly but over the years he and I had a friendly relationship. I consider him a good friend."

McGovern said they worked together from 1973 to 1981, while he was a senator and Abdnor was in the House. They ran a spirited Senate campaign against each other that Abdnor won in 1980, but McGovern said it was never personal.

Schoenbeck said Abdnor felt the same way. He told his young aide that while he and McGovern were 180 degrees apart on many issues, he liked and admired him.

That was evident in 2006, when the McGovern Library was dedicated on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus. Abdnor attended the event, although McGovern said he didn't know he was coming. From the stage, he spotted his old colleague, and they chatted after the event.

"I didn't know he was in the audience or I would have brought him up on the platform," McGovern said. "He was a quiet man, he didn't push himself forward. I liked him as a person."

Vehle said he spotted Abdnor at the event. The former senator was seated in a VIP section and had Vehle sit with him. The two men laughed as they recalled the 1980 campaign and wondered if they ever would have imagined themselves attending such an event, Vehle said.

Daschle served with Abdnor in Congress for eight years, from 1979 to 1987. The two men ran against each other for the Senate in 1986, with Daschle winning. It was Abdnor's final campaign.

"Jim Abdnor is one of the most decent, humble and honorable men that I have had the good fortune to know in my time in public life," Daschle said in an e-mail to The Daily Republic. "He was so successful in politics because he is genuine. We don't always agree on public policy, but I have always greatly admired him personally."

Former South Dakota congressman and senator Larry Pressler spoke highly of his former GOP col-league.

"My recollections of Jim are the very highest," Pressler said in an e-mail from Paris. "He was always kind to me and I appreciated him as a colleague in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Jim Abdnor is a South Dakota rancher, farmer, and the 'real thing.'"

Pressler said he will deliver a graduation speech Saturday at the West Central commencement exercises in Hartford, and will talk about Abdnor and McGovern, who both worked as teachers at one point in their lives.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard praised his fellow Republican in a statement issued shortly after Abdnor's death.

"I was sorry to learn of Senator Abdnor's death. Throughout the years he spent in Washington, Jim Abdnor never lost touch with South Dakota, and many of us loved him for his work ethic and common-sense approach," Daugaard said. "Linda and I extend our sympathies to Senator Abdnor's family."

Paula Nelson, the chairwoman of the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, has written two books on West River South Dakota and offered some thoughts on why Abdnor succeeded in politics.

"I think West River people respect those who work, who help others, and who have character that shows in their daily lives," Nelson wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Republic. "James Abdnor's father came to western South Dakota to stay when the Kennebec area was still new and struggling. Kennebec was only 11 years old at the time. He had been a successful peddler in rural areas of South Dakota and Nebraska, so he knew rural people, what they wanted to purchase, how they lived on their farms. His work as a peddler created the foundation of his successful career as a merchant in town.

"James Abdnor grew up in a community where his parents were respected members. He was immersed in local culture from the start, attended local schools, served in the military in World War II, came back to his home area, joined lodges, agricultural groups and other representations of West River life," she said. "He was always a part of his home place. He didn't stand apart but joined in. As such he was able to speak to the hopes, dreams and needs of his constituents, much as his father had spoken to the needs of his customers."

Abdnor went to the "big city" -- Lincoln, Neb. -- for his college education, but then returned to Kennebec to live and farm. Nelson said that had an impact on voters.

"Many people of Abdnor's generation left South Dakota to make solid professional careers in other places. They were raised to be hard working and dependable, to be people of integrity," she said.

"James Abdnor didn't leave South Dakota to develop a profession but practiced hard work and integrity through service to the people he knew. The people, in response, recognized someone who was able to speak for them," she said. "He rose because he had the intelligence, the initiative, the work ethic and the sense of place, of local culture, and of the people to allow him to serve."

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