REGIONAL — Rod Hamilton arrived in St. Paul in 2005 to begin serving as District 22B representative. He didn’t have to look far for a mentoring figure.
Jim Vickerman, the District 22 senator from Tracy, had already been in his office for 18 years and was well respected on both sides of the political aisle. Though Hamilton was a Republican and Vickerman a member of the DFL party, the two always worked well together.
In fact, Hamilton and Vickerman — who died Jan. 19 at age 89 — knew each other before Hamilton’s election to his first term.
“He was my senator before I even decided to run for office,” said Hamilton, a Mountain Lake lawmaker who just began his ninth term in the Minnesota House. “Being involved in the pork industry, I’d worked with him, and Jim was a champion for ag issues as well as veterans issues.”
Hamilton recalled that Vickerman was “very easy to work with, right from the start” of his tenure in the legislature.
“Jim’s nickname was ‘Gentleman Jim,’ and he earned that,” Hamilton said. “That’s obviously what he was.”
Vickerman was raised in a Murray County farm family and got his start as an elected official by serving on a Soil and Water Conservation District board before his eventual election to the Murray County Board of Commissioners. Former Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh remembers him from those days.
“I think he was running for Senate for the first time, and it was Reading’s centennial,” Oberloh said. “Jim was walking through the little town of Reading. … I thought he was a class act.”
Oberloh maintained that respect for Vickerman after his election as Worthington’s mayor in 2002.
“There were a lot of times we went up to the St. Paul on city business or Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities business,” Oberloh said. “Jim would tell us to just go through Senate chambers and they’d let him know we were there, and they would pull him out every time for us. I had a great deal of respect for that man.”
Oberloh noted that Vickerman was an important ally in helping get the former Prairie Expo building sold, adding that he went through “a great deal of effort” in convincing legislators to support the deal. He was also an important part of the push that allowed Worthington to clean up the former Campbell Soup Co. site, which later resulted in the construction of a new fire hall.
“He really looked out for the people of his district in a bipartisan way,” Oberloh praised.
Besides being a legislator who worked well with Democrats and Republicans, Hamilton said Vickerman also had a big heart.
“In 2006, I could no longer hide the fact that I had multiple sclerosis,” Hamilton said. “We were at a public forum in Worthington and I, for the first time, stated publicly that I had MS. Of course, I’m overcome with emotion, and Senator Vickerman stands up, walks around the podium and puts his hands on my shoulders. … He said, ‘When one of us hurts, we all hurt.’ He leaned down and said, ‘Wava (wife) and I will keep you in our prayers.
“That’s the person Jim was.”
Hamilton also recalled being a beneficiary of Vickerman’s gratitude after Hamilton broke with Republican ranks and voted to support the Minnesota 60 four-lane expansion project.
“He was always willing to set politics aside and do what was right,” Hamilton said. “We were at the grand opening for Heron Lake BioEnergy and we were up on stage. Of course, they would always call on the senior member (of the legislature), Senator Vickerman, as the first to speak. ... He said, ‘Rod, get up here. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Rod went to bat for you and for Highway 60 … and we need to give credit where credit is due. He didn’t have to do that.”
Robert J. Demuth, another former mayor of Worthington, recalled that he began his second term as mayor after Vickerman’s election to his first term in the Minnesota Senate in November 1986.
“I had a very good relationship with Jim Vickerman,” Demuth said. “He represented all the people, even though he was a Democrat all his life.”
Demuth pointed out that he and his wife, Betty, would travel up to the Twin Cities annually and have dinner with the Vickermans. He also fondly remembered a dinner at the Vickerman home in Tracy with Jim and Wava, him and Betty and Ginny Galle, that took place after Galle’s husband — John, a former mayor of Windom — died in February 2015.
Demuth also looked back upon a conversation he had with Vickerman a few years before the senator’s retirement from the legislature. His last day as a lawmaker in St. Paul was Jan. 3, 2011.
“I said to him, ‘What’s the biggest difference between 1986 and I’ll say 2006,” Demuth stated. “He said, ‘Bob, back then, when we’d have a meeting, we’d be talking … and at about 5 o’clock we’d break and say, how about we go out and get some food or a drink and keep talking?’”
Twenty years later, he said, no one from the opposite party socialized or even talked with each other.
“I thought, ‘How can you get anything done?’” Demuth said. “He was a great gentleman and a great man, and I really miss him.”
Added Hamilton: “We need Jim Vickermans, especially in this day and age.”