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Former Sen. Jim Abdnor moved to hospice care

Jim Abdnor, the soft-spoken Kennebec farmer who rose to the heights of power in Washington, D.C., is gravely ill and has been moved to hospice care in Sioux Falls.

Abdnor, 89, served one term as a U.S. senator, four as a congressman, and one term as a lieutenant governor. After the Republican was defeated in a bid for a second Senate term, he served as administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

State Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, has known Abdnor for more than 50 years and worked as his staff aide for four years after Abdnor was elected to Congress in 1972. He visited with Abdnor in the hospice Sunday.

"Jim is struggling," Vehle said. "He's struggling right now. He's had some struggles with Alzheimer's and just declining health at 89. He had a heart condition way back; I think it was when he was in the House.

"He's done well for a long time, but I think his body is ... well, it's just age. He's 89 years old. And he's been a very active guy his whole life. It's tough to see him like this."

Vehle said he did 99 percent of the talking during the visit. "There are times he's more alert than others," Vehle said. But when he mentioned a University of Nebraska football game the two men attended a few years ago, Abdnor, a 1945 University of Nebraska graduate, responded. "Yeah, we had some fun," Abdnor said, according to Vehle.

Abdnor represented Lyman County in the South Dakota Senate for 12 years and served as president pro tempore of the state Senate from 1965 to 1966. In 1968, he was elected lieutenant governor in a time when the lieutenant governor and governor ran on separate tickets.

Abdnor served two years with Gov. Frank Farrar, who was also a Republican, and then decided to try for a seat in Congress. But he lost the 1970 GOP primary for the state's Second District House seat to Fred D. Brady, who was defeated by James Abourezk, a Democrat and a distant cousin of Abdnor's.

Abdnor made a return to public office in 1972, winning the first of four terms in the House from the Second District as Abourezk moved to the Senate. Abdnor was known for his constituent service and skills as a retail politician, earning votes one at a time by meeting and talking with South Dakota voters.

In 1980, Abdnor took on Sen. George McGovern and defeated the nationally known liberal senator in a walk. It was Abdnor's final election win.

After six years in the Senate, he was defeated by Tom Daschle in a close race in 1986. Reagan then named him to the federal post, which he held from 1987 until 1989.

In retirement, Abdnor had homes in Kennebec, Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Florida. He played golf and loved to watch baseball, from the Minnesota Twins to youth teams, including Rapid City Legion Post 22.

Abdnor never married or had children, but he was very close to his nieces and nephews, Vehle said. He also remained close to the staff members and volunteers who had worked with him during his long political career.

"He was really a joy to work for," Vehle said. "Sometimes people demand you work overtime. Jim never did."

Instead, the congressman would urge his staff to get out of the office at night and play baseball or do something fun. The most prominent of those former aides is Sen. John Thune, who was an aide to Abdnor during Abdnor's Senate career and also while Abdnor ran the Small Business Administration.

In 2004, when Thune knocked off Daschle and claimed the Senate seat that Abdnor had once held, the old senator served as a campaign adviser and was saluted on that victorious Election Night.