WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Clinton highlighted a cast of politicians and personalities who paid tribute to retiring Rep. Bruce Vento Tuesday night, raising more than $500,000 for a scholarship in Vento's name to help recruit science teachers.
''He has steered into law more than 300 bills to protect our natural resources,'' Clinton said at a packed dinner held to honor Vento, a St. Paul Democrat who is retiring at the end of the year because of lung cancer.
''The thing I like even more about Bruce Vento is he cares about people, especially people without a voice -- the homeless.''
Joining Clinton were about two dozen lawmakers, including the entire Minnesota congressional delegation; radio personality Garrison Keillor; and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
The Bruce F. Vento Science Educator Scholarship Fund, administered by the Saint Paul Foundation, will help college juniors and seniors pursue a science education degree.
Clinton said it was appropriate that the dinner was held the day after scientists announced that they had mapped the entire human genetic code. Vento was a science and social studies teacher before he became a congressman 24 years ago.
''Bruce said, 'Well, that's exciting. Now we have to have find a few science teachers to explain what it means,''' Clinton relayed.
Clinton said Vento had been a friend and trusted adviser throughout his presidency.
''He never stopped being a teacher,'' he said. ''Bruce, your influence will never stop.''
Vento, 59, said one of the first calls he got after announcing his retirement was from Clinton.
''I assured him that he also would not be on the elected ballot that fall,'' Vento quipped.
Babbitt paid tribute to Vento's work on the House Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands, which Vento chaired for 10 years before the Republicans took control of the House in 1994.
''Everyone in the environmental movement knows what it's like to have a knowledgeable, stalwart friend,'' Babbitt said. ''Bruce's work will live on in the American landscape.''
Keillor, who is from St. Paul, said Vento epitomized the working class attitude of St. Paul.
''Bruce Vento is a St. Paul kind of guy,'' Keillor said. ''...People get up in the morning and go to work. And that's the story of Bruce Vento.''
He said Vento lived out the ethics he was brought up on: modesty, courage and passion.
Vento, who began a series of daily radiation treatments last week upon completion of chemotherapy, received a standing ovation that lasted more than a minute. For the most part, he refrained from any emotional sentiments.
But he did say, ''I've been overwhelmed by the support from the delegation these past months.
''I hope we will draw some strength from this,'' Vento said, ''to accomplish the goals in terms of what Congress can be, to try to get back on track for something besides the polarization, and something for the cooperation that should be our hallmark.''
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