In Memoriam: Dave Durenberger (1934-2023) U.S. Senator (R-Minn., 1978 – 1994)

A personal tribute to a respected Congressional health care leader who valued bipartisan solutions to America's challenges.

Health care

This week we lost a health care champion known for his ability to reach across the aisle and find consensus. And I lost a friend.

Thinking about it today, you might not think a Republican would champion proposals to expand Medicare benefits and lead efforts to secure rights for people with disabilities through the first iteration of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Dave Durenberger was a one-of-a-kind senator who knew how to listen, find common ground and value a bipartisan approach to solving America’s challenges. Amy Klobuchar (D), who now holds the same Senate seat, described him as “a dedicated legislator who was always guided by his devotion to bipartisanship and improving people’s lives.”

My husband, Steve, worked closely with the senator on many of his health care initiatives, when Steve was the Assistant Secretary for Legislation for the Department of Health and Human Services. Steve admired his passion, his collaborative style, and his honest Minnesota character.

But I knew him not as Sen. Durenberger, but as Dave. The first time I met him was when he insisted on throwing us a going-away party, because Steve had taken a new job in Minnesota. 

Dave welcomed us into his home, in a Northwest neighborhood of Washington, DC, for this party that he spent a lot of time planning. Our guests had all been encouraged to bring a “hot dish” to the party. I had expected a lot of pretty ladies in high heels, but soon learned “hot dish” actually was Minnesota speak for “casserole.” He sent out recipes to anyone who didn’t know how to make gooey goodness out of Cheez Whiz, canned mushroom soup and beer-basted chicken. In the front hall stood the largest baseball cap collection I had ever seen – with a sign demanding all the guests pick one to wear – “John Deere,” “Medtronic” and all the other Minnesota-based business and sports teams logos displayed on a rack. I was soon guided into the kitchen where his amazing wife, a legend and thought-leader in her own right, Susan Foote, pulled out from the fridge five different bowls of Jello salad – being a Californian, she didn’t realize how hard it is to get the mini-marshmallows to float throughout the Jello mold. One bowl had all the marshmallows on top; in another bowl, they had all sunk to the bottom – you get the picture.

Pot Luck Party Invitation
Patricia Kelmar | Used by permission
Invitation from Sen. Durenberger to our Going Away party

And this was just the start of many years of friendship. Dave and Susan soon moved back to the Twin Cities and we enjoyed afternoons of health care conversations in their backyard in St. Paul, with my kids running around and Dave’s adult children dropping by. We’ve kept in touch over the years at health conferences and through annual Christmas cards filled with Dave’s expanding family circle. He kept working and as recently as 2018 co-authored “When Republicans Were Progressive,” recalling the time when legislators were proud of their bipartisanship and worked to help the vulnerable. 

The example set by the Senator is sorely needed in today’s divided Congress. Tackling issues together, grounded in the desire to make lives for American families better, is the answer to our future. I tip my baseball cap to Senator Durenberger today.


Patricia Kelmar

Senior Director, Health Care Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Patricia directs the health care campaign work for U.S. PIRG and provides support to our state offices for state-based health initiatives. Her prior roles include senior policy advisor at NJ Health Care Quality Institute, associate state director at AARP New Jersey and consumer advocate at NJPIRG. She was appointed to the Ground Ambulance and Patient Billing Advisory Committee in 2022 and works with patient advocates across the U.S. Patricia enjoys walking along the Potomac River and sharing her love of books with friends and family around the world.

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