KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Former Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, who built a reputation as a military expert and social conservative during 34 years representing western and central Missouri in the U.S. House, died Monday in Virginia. He was 81.
Skelton died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., surrounded by his wife, his sons and their families as well as longtime colleague Russell Orban, who confirmed the death. The cause was not immediately released, but Orban said Skelton entered the hospital a week earlier with a bad cough.
A former prosecutor in his native Lexington, Mo., Skelton joined the national Kansas City-based law firm of Husch Blackwell following his 2010 defeat in Missouri's 4th Congressional District by Republican Vicky Hartzler, a state lawmaker who had strong tea party backing.
Skelton worked for the firm in both Kansas City and Washington, D.C., and maintained homes in Lexington and the Washington suburb of McLean, Va.
Skelton won the first of 17 congressional terms in 1976 and was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee at the time of his loss to Hartzler.
An astute military historian, Skelton helped build up Missouri's two military installations. As Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster was losing its cache of long-range nuclear missiles, Skelton secured its future in the late 1980s by getting the Defense Department to place the new B-2 bomber there.
After redistricting made Skelton the representative for Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood in 1983, the number of troops undergoing training there more than quadrupled and the post's mission expanded from the Army to all branches of military service.
"No member of the Congress was more dedicated to America's defense and those who defend us than Ike Skelton," said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who served with Skelton in the U.S. House. "He loved our country and its history and will be remembered for his contributions to both."
Born Dec. 20, 1931, Skelton met President Harry Truman as a teenager and had a lifelong interest in politics. He was elected Lafayette County prosecutor in 1956 and later practiced law with his father, but returned to elective office in 1970 when he won a six-year term in the Missouri Senate.
An endorsement from Truman's widow, Bess, helped him win his first race for the U.S. House.
"Missouri lost a giant tonight," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. "Ike Skelton represented the very best of Missouri, and fought tirelessly for the state he loved. Those of us lucky enough to call him a friend know that he lived the Missouri values of compromise and common sense. And in his half-century of service, he showed how Missouri could be a leader in contributing to the safety and security of our nation."
Until his loss to Hartzler, Skelton's closest call in a re-election bid had been a 10 percentage point victory in 1982, when redistricting changed his territory. He was a low-key campaigner but so dominant a political figure that late in his career, his campaign signs sometimes consisted only of the word "IKE" against a green background.
"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," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "To many in Congress and across Missouri, Ike was a mentor and a friend, and he will be missed."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said, "Congressman Skelton's quiet confidence and unwavering conviction is a tribute to his roots and a testament to the political courage that defines the best traditions of leadership."
Among his civic activities, Skelton was a presidential appointee to the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is in charge of U.S. military resting places overseas, and the World War I Centennial Commission, which is planning next year's activities marking the 100th anniversary of the start of that war.
Skelton had been elected chairman of the Centennial Commission and was especially looking forward to its work, said Orban, who spent 16 years as a congressional aide to Skelton before moving into other government work in 1992.
"If he was known for anything it was for being a student of history. He prized military education and the use of history," said Orban, who was retiring from government when he accepted Skelton's invitation to practice law with him in Husch Blackwell's Washington office.
Skelton was honored at West Point in 2012 with the Sylvanus Thayer Award, presented to "an outstanding citizen whose service and accomplishments in the national interests exemplify the Military Academy motto, `Duty, Honor, Country.'"
In a Veterans Day 2010 speech at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Skelton recounted how he dedicated his career to improving conditions for military troops, veterans and their families and to expanding the missions of Fort Leonard Wood, Whiteman Air Force Base and the Missouri National Guard.
He also expressed concern about the ability of the next Congress - led by Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate and White House - to find consensus. But he said his greatest concern was the potential for waning attention to the military.
"I am fearful that a chasm will develop between those who protect our freedoms and those who are being protected," Skelton said.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said 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."
Skelton had three sons with his first wife, Susan Anding, who died in August 2005. In 2009 he married Patricia Martin of Lexington, who survives along with his sons, U.S. Navy Capt. Ike Skelton V, James Anding Skelton and Harry Page Skelton.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Mo.