On October 25, 2002, a plane carrying Senator Paul Wellstone; his wife, Sheila; their daughter, Marcia; and five others went down near Eveleth, killing everyone on board. Minnesota, indeed the country, would never be the same.
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Ten years after their death, there are at least nine books about Paul and Sheila Wellstone, five films and plays, two schools named for them, 11 awards, one song (“The Ballad of Paul and Sheila” by Mason Jennings), and a handful of conspiracy websites. Wellstone Action, based in St. Paul, continues to run Camp Wellstone, the weekend seminar that has drilled Paul’s winning ways into 500 successful candidates and 50,000 activists in all 50 states—the largest program of its kind. The Wellstones are sainted ghosts now, beatified beacons from an earlier, more equitable era.
Paul had been a senator for just two terms when he died. His signature work, the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act, requiring equal insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses, had to be posthumously pushed through Congress. And yet, next to Kirby Puckett, he may have been the most charismatic, most beloved Minnesotan of his time. Just five-foot-five (the smallest man in the U.S. Senate), he had an outsized reputation: fast-talking Paul, the irascible wrestler, the principled populist—the only senator up for re-election who voted against going to war in Iraq. It would be his last major vote: two weeks later, he was dead.
The raucous memorial service, broadcast on television and radio across the country, echoed through the nation’s growing political divide. Norm Coleman would beat Paul’s replacement, former vice president Walter Mondale. There would be no more obstacles to war.
Yet in the end this is a love story: Paul in love with Minnesota, where he moved in 1969 to teach at Carleton College; in love with Sheila, whom he married at 19; in love with the little guy, the average Joe. Here, after one decade, two wars, and a global recession, the Wellstones’ family and friends reflect on their love, legacy, and that fateful final year.
“This Burning Feeling”
RICK KAHN (family friend): Paul started teaching at Carleton in the fall of 1969, my freshman year there. By the next year, I was basically a Paul Wellstone major—I took every class he taught. By the end of my third year, we were best friends.
Paul had never talked about running for office then. But the two of us would knock on doors together, organizing low-income people, and there was this one woman who invited us in. She had eight kids and couldn’t have been over 38. Just defeated by life. This is America, the land of opportunity, the land of dreams, and she had none. We both came out of there with this burning feeling, saying, “If we have to spend the rest of our lives doing this work, it’s worth it.”
BEN GOLDFARB (director, Wellstone Action): Plenty of people just want to be right. Paul wanted to be sure that he was actually going to change things. And once he decided he needed to run for office to do that, he was focused on being right and winning. He didn’t just want to be a gadfly.
DAVID WELLSTONE (eldest son): When my dad began campaigning, he would run the parade routes from side to side, sweating profusely. People thought, Geez, if he’s got that kind of energy…. That’s just how he was. I ran cross-country and my dad would run alongside the course—the whole way. I’d be 300 yards from the leader and he’d be there saying, “You can take this guy!” And wouldn’t you know, I’d do it.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: Have you seen my impression of Paul ordering breakfast? “Ireallywantthattoast! That’sgreattoast! Givemethosescrambledeggs! Ilove’em!” His energy was amazing.
Did I ever wrestle Paul? Let me put it this way: Paul is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. I’m not. I could stand to lose, oh, maybe five pounds. Paul was incredibly buff, wore those very tight T-shirts.
CONNIE LEWIS (former Wellstone Senate director): Wrestling was really important to him. Every March, during the state wrestling tournament, the calendar would have to be cleared for him to be there. He would watch and talk to people—he was kind of a cheerleader.
On Friday nights, it was often my job to pick up Paul at the airport when he got back from Washington. He’d just be exhausted. I’d go over the weekend schedule and he’d say, “You’re killing me!” But at the end of the weekend, he’d say, “I’ve got to do more of these events, I got to see so many people!” He was probably the most extroverted person I’ve ever known.