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Government, Politics & Issues

Volkmer remembered as tireless advocate of issues spanning spectrum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2011 - The death of former U.S. Rep. Harold Volkmer, also known as "the roadrunner,'' marked the departure of one of the remaining rural Democrats who didn't fit the standard party mold.

Mr. Volkmer, 80, died Saturday of pneumonia at a nursing home in Hannibal, Mo. Funeral services are scheduled for Wednesday at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Hannibal, with burial in the church cemetery.

Mr. Volkmer was an outspoken defender of gun rights -- crafting the Volkmer-McClure Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 -- and an ardent opponent of abortion.

But during his 20 years in Congress, Rep. Volkmer also embraced an array of progressive causes, from minority voting and housing rights to stronger environmental laws.

He backed the creation of the U.S. Department of Education and took heat over his 1978 vote transferring ownership of the Panama Canal. During his earlier stint in the Missouri House, Mr. Volkmer backed the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

"Harold was an excellent legislator. No detail got by him, and he was an extremely hard worker and served his constituents 24/7," said former U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Lexington, a law school classmate who also served with Mr. Volkmer in the Missouri House and then moved with him to Congress in 1977.

Mr. Volkmer also got along well with many Republicans, including now-U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

"He and I became pretty good friends after he left Congress and I came to Congress," Blunt told reporters today. "I think Harold always came by to see me every time he was in [Washington], and I was always glad to see him. He gave me good advice."

Mr. Volkmer's "roadrunner'' nickname -- coined decades ago by the late U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo. -- was a playful tweak at his seemingly boundless energy and rapid-fire speech.

Mr. Volkmer had remained active until recently, so much so that his absence was noted at this year's Democrat Days gathering in Hannibal. For years, Rep. Volkmer usually showed up for the party's Saturday brunch, even occasionally addressing the crowd.

"Congressman Volkmer was a tremendous representative of Northeast Missouri during his time in Congress," the Missouri Democratic Party said in a statement. "He continued to remain active in his community and the Democratic Party."

Harold Volkmer was born in Jefferson City, graduated from St. Louis University and the law school at the University of Missouri at Columbia -- the latter where he met up with Skelton.

"I knew Harold in law school at Mizzou, then we worked in collaboration when he was in the Missouri House and I was in the Missouri Senate," recalled Skelton in a statement. "We worked particularly closely on the reorganization of Missouri state government in the early 1970s and that was a huge task that served our state so well in the ensuing decades."

Mr. Volkmer served in the Missouri House from 10 years, beginning in 1967, leaving when he ran for Congress in 1976. He succeeded a fellow Democrat, then-U.S. Rep. William Hungate, who opted to retire from the U.S. House, later becoming a federal judge.

Mr. Volkmer arrived in Congress in the same freshman class with Skelton and St. Louisan Richard A. Gephardt. Volkmer quickly established himself, like Skelton, as particularly interested in agriculture and military affairs.

Rep. Volkmer also wielded clout on several regional issues, gaining credit to winning federal money to help expand the main road into Hannibal, U.S. 61, to four lanes.

But he arguably attracted the most national attention for his 1986 measure aimed at protecting gun rights.

"Harold made a historical difference for the protection of firearms rights for law abiding citizens," said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. "He didn't shy away from Speaker Tip O'Neill or Chairman Peter Rodino after they declared the discharge petition for McClure-Volkmer dead on the floor of the House. He was a congressman who put principle above party and kept faith with the people he represented."

Still, by the 1990s, Rep. Volkmer also was known for his narrow re-election margins. He had fended off Republican rival Kenny Hulshof, a fellow lawyer, in 1994. In 1996, Hulshof was successful in knocking off Mr. Volkmer.

Mr. Volkmer was philosophical about his defeat at the time, noting that he had suffered a more powerful personal loss -- the death of his beloved wife -- the year before.

He returned home to Hannibal, began a new life as a local lawyer and remarried. But he remained engaged on national affairs, particularly gun rights. A year after his congressional defeat, Mr. Volkmer was elected to the National Rifle Association Board of Directors, holding that post until 2009. He was still serving on the NRA's executive council at the time of his death.

An NRA spokesman said that Volkmer attended the NRA's last board meeting in January.

(Click here for a video interview of Volkmer last year by the Hannibal Courier-Post.)

Said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a statement: "Harold Volkmer dedicated his life to standing up for the people of Missouri. Throughout his long career, both in Jefferson City and in Washington, he worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents, always fighting for what he believed in, even in the face of his own party leadership. He was a true statesman and public servant for the people of Hannibal and of the state of Missouri."

The man who now holds Mr. Volkmer's congressional seat -- Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer -- also offered praise for the late congressman's approach to politics and life.

"Harold Volkmer was a man of great passion whose dedication to public service and to the people of the 9th District serve as an example to me of how to be an effective member of Congress," Luetkemeyer said today. "I had the privilege of meeting Harold several times, and the insight and guidance he provided me was invaluable because he always put integrity and country first. Harold was both a statesman and gentleman."

Beacon Washington correspondent Robert Koenig contributed to this article.

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