PIERRE, S.D. -- Former U.S. Sen. Jim Abdnor gained fame nationally as the South Dakota Republican who ousted George McGovern from the Senate, but he was known in his home state as the farmer-turned-astute-politician who loved talking with people and never let the trappings of office get to him.
Abdnor, who was also a teacher, coach and World War II veteran before jumping into politics, died Wednesday, his family said in a statement. He was 89.
Abdnor was proud of his roots on a central South Dakota farm, even as he worked his way to the state Legislature, the lieutenant govenor's office and Congress. He said his years of riding a tractor helped him represent farmers in Washington.
"I'm a farmer," Abdnor said in 1986. "I've dug more dirt out of my ears than anyone in Congress. I treasure that heritage."
Vance Goldammer, Abdnor's attorney and long-time friend, said Abdnor died of natural causes after being in hospice care since May 6.
Despite three decades in public service, Abdnor wasn't known as a great public speaker and even joked about it in campaign ads. But he served on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and earned a reputation for working hard to help farmers and ranchers and promote South Dakota water projects, including the WEB Rural Water System.
Abdnor was a four-term congressman when he defeated the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee as McGovern tried to win his fourth Senate term in 1980. Abdnor claimed that the liberal McGovern was out of touch with South Dakota – saying he couldn't even produce a state driver's license when he applied for a hunting permit.
Abdnor wound up receiving nearly 60 percent of the vote, part of the Republican wave that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House.
The highlight of his career, Abdnor said, was serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee because it helped South Dakota get attention even though the state had only one House member to help its two senators.
"You'd be surprised how these agencies like to talk to people that handle money that might affect them," Abdnor told The Associated Press in 1993. "When you're a small state like South Dakota, it's the only committee as far as I'm concerned when you only have two or three people representing you."
Abdnor survived a bruising Republican primary challenge while seeking re-election in 1986 by then-Gov. William Janklow, who called Abdnor a weak candidate and cited his lack of speaking skills. The senator embraced the criticism with humor, saying in a television ad: "So I'm not a great speaker. Heck, I'm not a great dancer either, but I'm a great fighter for South Dakota."
But he was defeated in the general election by then-U.S. Rep. Tom Daschle, who went on to serve three terms in the Senate before narrowly losing in 2004 to former Rep. John Thune, who considered Abdnor his mentor. Thune, an assistant to Abdnor during his Senate days, credited him for his own interest in politics.
"Jim Abdnor was one of the most decent people to ever serve South Dakota in public life and was a great inspiration to me toward public service," Thune, now a second-term U.S. senator, said shortly before he was sworn into office in 2005.
When Abdnor lost his Senate seat, Reagan appointed him head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, a post he held for two years.
Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole praised Abdnor shortly before he took on the job in 1987, saying: "It is Jim's commitment and understanding of small-town America, of small businesses, its special needs and concerns, that makes his nomination so right."
Thune, who first met Abdnor when the politician chided him for only making five of six free throws in a high school basketball game, said everything he knows "about politics that is good I learned from Jim Abdnor."
"He was a hardworking and effective fighter for South Dakota, and one of the most decent and genuine people to ever hold elective office," Thune told The Associated Press in a statement Wednesday. "He always managed to maintain what I think was a very healthy perspective about who he was and where he was from, and he never let the title of the office get to him."
Former state lawmaker Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown, who worked for Abdnor as a new college graduate decades ago, said Abdnor encouraged dozens of young people to get into government service. The senator also frequently ran behind schedule because he couldn't tear himself away from conversations, he said.
"That guy just couldn't get enough chances to talk to people in South Dakota," Schoenbeck said.
After leaving Washington, Abdnor lived alternately between homes in South Dakota in Kennebec and Rapid City and spent winters in recent years in Florida – though he always considered Kennebec his home. He leased his 4,000-acre ranch while serving in the Senate.
"Kennebec is a little quieter than Rapid City. The streets were empty at 8 o'clock at night. It was quite an adjustment after living in Washington since 1972," he said in a 1993 interview.
Abdnor moved from Rapid City to a retirement facility in Sioux Falls in 2003, but spent winters in Fort Myers, Fla. He moved to assisted living in late 2010.
He was born in 1923, the son of Lebanese immigrants. He received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Nebraska in 1945, and then taught school at Kennebec and Presho before becoming a farmer. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and never married.
Abdnor was elected to the South Dakota Senate in 1956, serving six terms in the Legislature. He then was elected lieutenant governor in 1968, filling that position until 1971. Before becoming a state senator, he had worked as an assistant clerk in the state House. Abdnor donated his congressional papers to the South Dakota Archives in 1993.
His attorney, Goldammer, said Abdnor will be missed by his relatives and the friends who were his extended family.
"There may have been political leaders who had more supporters, but nobody had more friends than Jim Abdnor," Goldammer said.
A brother and sister preceded him in death, but nieces and nephews scattered across the country regularly visited him in Sioux Falls.
Abdnor's funeral will be held Saturday at Lutheran Memorial Church in Pierre. Thune will give the eulogy.