February 13 would have been former U.S. Sen. Jim Abdnor’s 100th birthday. Known as “the People’s Senator,” Jim represented South Dakota values in Washington for almost two decades. Jim Abdnor was the real deal. He treated everyone like a close friend, expressing genuine interest in people’s lives wherever he went. He was a public servant driven by a sense of the common good, not “good politics” or personal ambition. And he was a selfless mentor who inspired the people around him to be better. Most everything I know about public service that’s good, I learned from him.
Jim Abdnor grew up in the small West River town of Kennebec. Working in his father’s general store, he learned the values that are embodied in so many South Dakota towns: our strong work ethic, sense of personal responsibility, and belief in responsibility to the broader community. He believed in hard work and living with integrity, and he brought these principles to everything he did, whether it was as a farmer, coach, teacher, or public servant. And they are the values that informed so many great lessons Jim taught me and countless others he took under his wing.
In small towns like Kennebec and Murdo, where I grew up, you can count on the whole town turning out for a high school sporting event. Jim was a common fixture at these events, always looking for the nearest game wherever his duties took him around South Dakota. In fact, I first met Jim after he came to one of my high school basketball games. I made five out of six free-throws in that game, and when I later met Jim, he said, “I noticed you missed one.” That was Jim for you. He was ever the coach striving to make you better, the teacher always with a lesson at the ready, the farmer planting seeds with confident patience that they will one day grow into something great.
Jim took an interest in me, like he did in so many others, because he genuinely liked people and wanted to see future leaders reach their potential. It was from that basketball game in small-town South Dakota that Jim and I began a decades-long friendship that would take me to Washington to work for him in the U.S. Senate and at the Small Business Administration under President Ronald Reagan. Jim was a great boss, often choosing to hire talented young leaders who didn’t have much experience to give them opportunities to grow.
Working for Jim, it didn’t take long before I found that he had the same genuine “nice guy” reputation in Washington as he did in South Dakota. It came as no surprise, Jim treated everyone with the same dignity and respect whether they were the custodian in the Capitol or the Queen of England. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole once remarked, “If there was such a thing as a decency index, Jim Abdnor would be off the charts.”
Many of us have someone in our life who challenged us to think bigger, to consider our purpose, and to live for others. Jim Abdnor was that person for me, and I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have had Jim as a mentor. Jim was truly “the People’s Senator,” and his legacy of living with integrity and purpose lives on in the people he inspired to do the same.