If there was such a thing as a decency index, Jim Abdnor would be off the charts.
~ Senator Bob Dole
Senator James Abdnor Eulogy
Delivered by Senator John Thune
May 19, 2012
This is a sad day for a lot of people, not the least of which are the members of Jim’s family, who are here today. But the thing that is so unique about Jim Abdnor is that we all feel like we’re a part of his family, because he treated us that way. As I look around the church today, I see the many faces of Jim’s family. For every person in this room, I’ll bet there is a story about how Jim adopted you into his family, and it didn’t have anything to do with how much money you had, or how politically connected you were, or what your political affiliation was. Jim was interested in you because, well, you were you, and he just naturally cared about you as a person.
For me, it was a basketball game in my home town. Our paths crossed because we had a mutual love, high school basketball. I still remember vividly that first encounter after having made 5 of 6 free throws in a basketball game the night before, meeting Jim on Main Street in Murdo and having him say “I noticed you missed one last night.” He had no reason to take an interest in a skinny kid from Murdo. My parents weren’t involved in politics. In fact, they were Democrats. He took an interest in me, like so many others, because he genuinely liked people and wanted to see them reach their potential. If it were not for Jim Abdnor, there is no way I could be doing what I’m doing today.
Jim Abdnor didn’t have the flowery speaking ability that we associate with so many politicians. No, he was blessed with something that ordinary politicians could only hope for. He sincerely loved people and possessed a quiet determination and genuineness of purpose that is so often missing in today’s politics. There was no pretension, no hidden agenda. With Jim Abdnor, what you saw was what you got. I watched with awe as he moved comfortably around people in any setting. He didn’t ask people questions about themselves or their families because it was expected of him or because politicians are supposed to, he asked because he cared.
Everything about politics I know that is good, I learned from Jim Abdnor. And I will forever be trying to live up to the amazing example he set for those who would come after. Jim Abdnor reminded us that it’s not about personal ambition but about the common good, that you can have a title but that that doesn’t determine your value, and that you can make a difference without compromising who you are.
Maybe it was the immigrant heritage, maybe it was the farm background, maybe it was having to do things the hard way, but there was something special about Jim Abdnor. There was an understated charisma about him and an optimism that anything was possible. He always saw the good in people. I remember when I first went to work for him in Washington, I met a staff member who worked for a Democrat Senator who served with Jim on the Appropriations Committee. When I told him who I worked for, the first thing he said to me was that “your boss has got to be the nicest person on Capitol Hill.” Senator Bob Dole used to say that if there was such a thing as a decency index, that Jim Abdnor would be off the charts.
You don’t have to look very deep to realize that politics can often be a cynical profession, filled with inauthentic people. Jim Abdnor was the real deal. He treated the guy who cleaned his office the same way he treated the President of the United States. Those of us who were fortunate enough to work with Jim got to see that every single day.
I think I speak for everyone who worked for Jim when I say that he was someone who was willing to forgive your screw-ups. One of the reasons people were so loyal to him was that he was so loyal to them. He made a point of hiring good people, often young and inexperienced, and giving them a lot of running room. He was the kind of boss who inspired people around him to be better. It’s often said of the truly great athletes that they make the players around them better. I can’t think of a more fitting description of Jim Abdnor.
And of course, no discussion of Senator Abdnor would be complete without talking about his trademark. That was his integrity. It wasn’t just an empty word. It was a way of life. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk, no matter the consequences. I still remember vividly the debate on the 1985 Farm Bill. It would have been so easy to vote “no.” It was good politics to vote “no.” Jim voted “yes,” because he believed it was the right thing to do for South Dakota. He was attacked over and over for that vote. That same year he voted for a tough, fiscally responsible budget, for which he was also attacked. It passed by one vote in the United States Senate, his vote. Either one of those votes, it could be argued, cost him an election. To Jim Abdnor, doing the right thing mattered more.
Jim’s integrity didn’t end when he left the Senate floor. It didn’t apply to just the big things, it applied to the little things as well. I remember many times playing golf with Jim. He never shaved strokes and he never cheated on a lie. In fact, one time when we were playing Jim hit his tee shot into the rough and next to a tree. There was no way he could get a clean shot. He was encouraged by those of us in his group to move the ball out, away from the tree, where he could get a clean shot. Instead, he insisted on hitting the ball where it laid. And, of course, he had this brand new ginty golf club that was his pride and joy. He used to remind us how much he paid for it. So he pulls out the ginty and swings for all he’s worth. He wraps the club around the tree and snaps it in two.
Jim Abdnor was never one for taking the short cut, even if it cost him. It was true in his professional life and his private life. There was no distinction when it came to the issue of integrity. It was in his DNA.
Jim was a great golf partner, he always brought his sense of humor with him. I remember another time golfing, where we had two groups and Jim’s group teed off ahead of ours. They were off in the left rough looking for someone’s ball but were so far out of the line of fire that we decided it was safe for our group to tee off. Well, anyone who’s ever golfed with me knows how awful my game is and that you are never safely out of the line of fire. So I tee off and hit this blistering line drive hook, right at Jim. He doesn’t even see it coming and it drills him right in the chest. Without missing a beat, he says “I got it”.
He’s probably still got a Titleist imprint on his chest. And I still feel bad about that one.
I think he forgave me for that.
It’s a good thing Jim was a forgiving person. About 20 years ago, on the way to the Minnehaha Lincoln Day Dinner, I stopped to pick Jim up in Kennebec. We hopped into his Lincoln, stopped at the gas station for a cup of coffee, and started barreling down I90. I put the cruise control on before I realized that we were on ice, we went into a slide, then a full 360 and ended up in the ditch on the right side of the road. Rather than focus on the fact that I had almost killed us, Jim seemed completely enamored by the fact that the cup of coffee I held in my right hand hadn’t even spilled a drop through the entire incident. Jim never told me this but I found out later that the alignment in his car was never quite right after that.
Jim and I didn’t talk about faith all that often. For Jim, it was a quiet thing. He believed faith was something lived more than spoken. Jim lived life by a set of principles. In the book The Purpose Driven Life, the best-selling book in the history of the world with the exception of the Bible, it’s sold over 30 million copies, author Rick Warren starts with this sentence. “It’s not about you.” Jim understood that it wasn’t about him, which I think explained his humility.
Jim also understood the concept of grace. He showed grace to me on many occasions when I didn’t deserve it, and I had the opportunity to observe him express it to many others as well. As we reflect on Jim’s life it’s a good opportunity to reflect on our own lives. We will all face death at some point and an encounter with our maker. The Holy Scriptures make it clear in the book of Ephesians that “it is by grace we are saved, through faith, and this not from ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast.”
The Apostle Paul says in the book of Romans that “we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory,” that “none of us is righteous, not even one.” And that “the wages of our sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s up to us to make a decision about whether to accept or reject that gift. I would hope that all of us, when confronted with that choice, would say “yes” to God’s amazing grace through Christ.
As we say goodbye to our friend Jim Abdnor today, we remember someone who meant so much to so many people. In his later years, as father time started wearing him down, his love for people and for the simple things in life never failed. When I would visit him at the nursing home, he would take me around the dining room and introduce me to everyone there, I think just assuming they would all want to meet me. If we found a table that wasn’t interested, he would just move on to the next one. And I thought it was especially fitting that the last time I saw him, like the first time, it was about basketball. I sat with him in his room as we watched Kentucky play Louisville in the Final Four. For Jim and me, it ended like it began, a couple of small town guys, sitting and watching a game we loved, like we had so many times before over the years.
Jim, I know I speak for the hundreds of people here today and the thousands who couldn’t make it when I say “thank you.” Thank you for being a great boss, a great mentor, a great leader, a great role model, and a great inspiration. And most of all, thank you for being our friend. We will miss you more than you’ll ever know.