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Congressman Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, answers a question during a 1994 interview in his San Mateo, Calif., office. Lantos, who recently announced he would not seek re-election due to a battle with cancer, died Monday morning at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. (Mathew Sumner)
Here and across the country, those who knew Rep. Tom Lantos said the nation has lost one of a kind.

Congressional colleagues of the 14-term Democrat, who died early Monday morning after a battle with cancer, say they'll always remember him as a tireless advocate for human rights.

"He was a personal friend, and a mentor," U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. "He stood tall in the most difficult of circumstances. And he represented his district with a dignity and a forcefulness that's unprecedented."

Several mentioned the Holocaust survivor's tendency to fight for those most vulnerable.

"He had an understanding that few other people could have of how important human and civil rights are," said state Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City. "He will not be able to be replaced in that capacity."

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto,

called Lantos "the most eloquent voice for the voiceless here and around the world" for the past three decades.

At San Francisco State University, where he taught for several decades, Lantos had tested his oratorical skills several years before the free-speech movement took hold at UC Berkeley.

William Mason, a professor emeritus of economics at the university, remembered seeing Lantos perched on top of the "speaker's platform" in front of the campus cafeteria, debating politics with a professor of international relations.

"He was a great public speaker," said Mason, 81, whose office was next door to Lantos' for 25 years.


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"No one could be better trained for what he ended up doing."

Friends and colleagues said Lantos' personal convictions drove much of his work in Congress. A staunch supporter of animal rights, Lantos co-authored legislation requiring cities and counties to include pets in disaster plans to qualify for federal aid.

Lantos took a deep interest in the Peninsula Humane Society, said society president Ken White.

"Tom talked about this a lot, sitting at home and watching the (Hurricane) Katrina news. He talked about the young boy who walked to a bus where he and his family were about to be evacuated, and a relief worker had to reluctantly pull from his arms his little white dog," White said. "The boy was losing one of the few things that made sense to him. All of us found that moving."

Local leaders said Lantos loyally brought their battles to Washington, securing $150 million for a tunnel to bypass Devil's Slide and $750 million to extend BART to Millbrae.

Lantos "was a steadfast and powerful friend of the San Mateo County coast and its unique environment," said Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, an activist who was one of the driving forces behind the tunnel project.

Former state Sen. Jackie Speier the clear favorite to replace Lantos remembered getting to know Lantos during her run for the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in 1980. Lantos was trying to unseat an incumbent Republican in his first bid for the House seat.

The pair went to Lyon's coffee shop in Millbrae weekly to talk about their campaigns, exchanging stories and pep talks, Speier said.

She called him "the consummate gentleman, gracious and gentle" and said she hopes his passion for representing the dispossessed will be passed on.

MediaNews staff writer Frank Davies in Washington contributed to this report. E-mail Shaun Bishop at sbishop@dailynewsgroup.com.