By Rich Killingsworth, President of the Board, Walkable and Livable Communities Institute
(Originally published on May 9, 2014)
When I first heard the news of Former Congressman Jim Oberstar’s passing this past Saturday, I felt a deep loss. But just as quickly, the fond and amazing memories of him swept over me.
There are few moments in my 50 years of walking, running, and cycling on this planet that I recall as vividly as the day I first met Congressman Oberstar. It was March 17th, 2000 at the Sea Otter event convened by Bicycle Retailer Magazine. At the time, I was a young health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and was blessed to represent an emerging initiative in public health that would eventually be the catalyst for a national movement—active living—that we hoped would slow the tide of growing obesity. I was scheduled to give an opening presentation, and Jim was scheduled to follow me. Right before my moment to speak, Jim said a few simple words to me that gave me the courage to challenge an industry to do something very big. He reminded me that I had the key executives from the major bike brands in front of me and said, “Don’t lose the moment. Seize it, and enable them to do something that will be meaningful for this cause.”
With his conviction, Jim inspired me in that moment to shake the proverbial “Watchman’s Rattle” and state the obvious in my presentation: that the bike industry needed to start doing the very thing it should be accountable to do, which was to get this nation active and healthier. Because of Jim, there I stood challenging people I didn’t know to do something I wasn’t sure was possible.
And that was typical of Jim. He said things in a way that people knew something special was happening. That night, I could see faces light up, eyes intently focused on his words, lips whispering his charge. He was building a cadre of soldiers who would prosecute an agenda, setting into motion policies, programs, and research intended to change the nation for the better.
The week after Sea Otter, I wrote an editorial for the Bicycle Retailer Magazine in which I attempted to capture the essence of the event. I wrote that many years down the road, we would look back and say, “That is where it all began”. Fourteen years later, I reflect on that evening and am certain I was with a man who will forever be known as the father of Safe Routes to School, a true champion and advocate for active living, someone who lived what he preached, and inspired countless people to join a cause that has in many ways changed an industry, a nation and its people.
‘A meeting behind the woodshed’
I was honored to have Jim serve on the National Advisory Committee when I directed Active Living by Design. Every time Jim asked me to be someplace—whether to testify to Congress, present to constituent groups, educate colleagues on the Hill—I always found a way to get there. In fact, I often found myself exhausted trying to keep up with him. He had the energy and stamina of a lion in the wild. I asked his trusted Chief of Staff, Bill Richard, how Jim maintains the energy to keep doing it all. Bill explained that Jim truly believes in what he is doing, and that he is convinced he is doing the right thing.
Jim was so committed to his cause that when things occasionally stalled, he could be heard saying “We are going to have a meeting behind the woodshed.” That was code for “You’d better support what Jim wanted done….or else!” I never wanted to test that notion with Jim. Nobody did.
In 2011, my six-year-old son met Jim. This was seven months after my father passed away, and being around Jim was both moving and healing. My son and I were again in the presence of a person whose qualities I hoped my son would emulate. In Jim, my son could see that character—true, disciplined character—helps people accomplish great things in life, even in the face of insurmountable odds.
Before we left for the day, Jim signed a business card for my son that read, “Best wishes, to my new friend.” That was just like Jim: he crafted his message for his audience and made every person feel like the most special person on the planet. My son looked at the card and simply said, “Wow!”
Jim had recruited a new soldier into his army that day.
‘The standard by which I judge service to our nation’
When my son and I left, I didn’t know that would be the last time I would hug Jim Oberstar.
I am so glad that not too long ago, I sent a note to Jim reminding him of the importance of his work, and his role in the movement.
“Jim, you instilled in me an understanding that we are here for a purpose, to leave a legacy so our children can thrive and our nation can continue to be the greatest place to live. I do not hesitate to say that you have been and will always continue to be the standard by which I judge Congressional members and their service to our nation. Thank you for the impact you have had in my life and the lives of millions of people throughout this land. We are a better nation and people because of you.”
Honor his legacy by redoubling our efforts
While we mourn Jim’s passing, I imagine him taking a bike ride with God in Heaven and being told, “My son, you have served well.”
Let us serve well, too. Let us honor Jim’s legacy by redoubling our efforts to transform built environments throughout the country, restore health and well-being to towns large and small, and show through our character, our actions and our daily activities that we can indeed change our course. I intend to do this both through my work with the Delaware Division of Public Health and in my role on the governing board of the non-profit Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, which helps create healthy, connected communities that support active living and that advance opportunities for all people through walkable streets, livable cities and better built environments.
Let’s all do as Jim told me 14 years ago: “Don’t lose the moment. Seize it, and enable others to do something that will be meaningful for this cause.”