Former Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, a champion of the military who served 17 terms in the U.S. House before losing a re-election bid in 2010, has died. He was 81.
Skelton died Monday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, VA, surrounded by family and friends, including longtime colleague Russell Orban.
The cause was not immediately released, but Orban says Skelton entered the hospital a week earlier with a cough. Orban confirmed Skelton's death to The Associated Press.
President Barack Obama was among those lauding Skelton Monday night after news broke of his passing.
"For 34 years, Ike Skelton served the people of Missouri in the United States Congress. He was beloved and respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Ike was a devoted advocate for our men and women in uniform," Obama said in a statement. "To many in Congress and across Missouri, Ike was a mentor and a friend, and he will be missed. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to his wife Patty, his family and loved ones."
Skelton last appeared in public in early September for the rededication for the Truman Courthouse on the Independence Square. He was notably frail during that appearance.
The Lexington, MO, native was a Democrat and former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Skelton lost to Republican Vicky Hartzler in 2010 in western Missouri's 4th Congressional District as part of a Republican tidal wave. Skelton then joined the law firm of Kansas City-based Husch Blackwell, working in its offices in Kansas City and Washington.
In 2012, he was honored by the Truman Presidential Library with its Good Neighbor award. He was known for championing Missouri's Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leonard Wood.
After his first wife, Susie, died, Skelton remarried. He is survived by three sons and his wife, Patty.
"I've led a charmed life in many ways, but as a youngster I learned that a person's life can change forever in an instant," he said during prepared remarks for his farewell address in December 2010. "After contracting polio, I was fortunate to receive treatment at the Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia. Polio affects each person differently, but all Warm Springs patients learned valuable lessons about life -- never let illness define you, never be limited by the expectations of others, never give up, and never stop working. By applying the belief that nothing is impossible if you work hard, thousands of Warm Springs alumni, including myself, have led happy and productive lives."
He said serving as chairman of the House Armed Services committee was the high point of his political career. He said national security transcends politics and those of both parties must work together, and he bemoaned extreme points of view on either side of the political aisle.
"I've always considered each young man and woman in uniform as a son or daughter. They are national treasurers and their sacrifices cannot be taken for granted," he said. "They are not chess pieces to be moved upon a board. Each and every one is irreplaceable. Issues of national security and war and peace are too important to lose sight of the real men and women who answer our nation's call and do the bidding of the command in chief."
He said he considered his more than three decades in Congress a labor of love and, "I've done my damndest every single day."
KCTV5's Facebook page was filled with condolences including some remembering how Skelton handled their adoption or did legal work on behalf of their families. He was remembered as a true gentleman with a warm, compassionate heart.
Condolence messages also came from political leaders.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri who also served in the U.S. House with Skelton, remembered Skelton.
"It was a great privilege to serve Missouri in the Congress with Ike Skelton and to benefit from his friendship and advice," Blunt said. "No member of the Congress was more dedicated to America's defense and those who defend us than Ike Skelton. He loved our country and its history and will be remembered for his contributions to both."
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, mourned Skelton's passing.
"A role model to whom I had the honor of presenting Missouri's highest military honor, the Conspicuous Service Medal, Ike Skelton inspired us all with his quiet dignity and tireless commitment to America's men and women in uniform," Nixon said.. "A friend to Missourians, Americans and liberty-loving people worldwide, Congressman Skelton embodied the true meaning of public service and will forever be remembered as a leader who left a legacy of greater prosperity and security for his district, our state and our nation."
The Missouri Democratic Party leaders offered their sympathies to his family.
"He was a Missourian, a statesman and a champion of a strong and sensible national defense. And above all, he was a gentleman. His love of and faith in America was unshakable and his support for the U.S. military was second to none. This is a loss for Missouri and the nation," the statement said.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders had invited Skelton to play a key role in the Truman Courthouse rededication. On Monday night, Sanders remembered Skelton as a true gentleman and a great ambassador for Missouri.
"Serving as both a prosecutor and United States Congressman, Congressman Skelton dedicated much of his life to public service. His work to increase military training at Fort Leonard Wood and to have the B-2 bomber placed at Whiteman Air Force Base helped put the state of Missouri and our metropolitan area on the map," he said. "Congressman Skelton resembled President Truman in so many ways, both in his passion for our nation's military and to serving the citizens of Missouri. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his entire family."
Hartzler issued a statement Monday night.
"I am deeply saddened at the passing of my predecessor and respected friend, Ike Skelton. I have appreciated our conversations over the past two and a half years and the commitment we shared to see Missouri's 4th District prosper," she said. "I am thankful for Ike's tireless efforts on behalf of our men and women in uniform and know our country is safer as a result of his unwavering leadership. My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time."
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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