by susan lenfestey
Sheila Wellstone called me in early September, 2002. "I know y'all done a lot for Paul, but how do you feel about one more fundraiser?"
Jim and I were taking an anniversary trip to Turkey and wouldn't be back until October 17, two days before the proposed fundraiser. I told her it was too soon, the house would be a mess, and besides, it wasn't big enough to hold all the "Women for Wellstone" they planned to invite. And then it struck me. "I guess if you and Paul can haul your asses out of bed each day to win this thing, then I can get my house in order for a fundraiser."
And so it came to be that we had one of the last fundraisers for Paul Wellstone. The weather turned cold and the lines of people wrapped around the corner waiting to get into our jampacked house. Somehow we all fit, crammed from the back kitchen door to the front and up the stairs to the second floor. People brought gifts -- hats, t-shirts, bread, books -- I'd never seen such an outpouring.
I don't remember who spoke first -- maybe Sheila, then Paul, who announced that the polls that day showed him up by six points, meaning that his vote against the war in Iraq - considered political suicide by many -- had in fact given him a boost. He was the only senator in a hotly contested race with the courage to vote no, and with eloquent prescience.
Their daughter Marcia spoke about how she didn't "get it" when he first ran because she was a self-centered teenager. But now, as a mom and a teacher, she said, she had never spent a better fall than the time she had taken from her job to help on the campaign. She was vibrant, articulate, a chip off the old block. "I get it now, Mom and Dad," she said. "I am so grateful to have had this time with you." Sheila stood watching her speak, her arms wrapped around Marcia's young son, Josh. When Marcia finished there were teary hugs all around.
Six days later my niece called from work. "I'm looking at CNN on my computer and it's saying that a plane registered to Paul Wellstone has crashed in northern Minnesota." "NO," I said, "I won't hear this," and hung up the phone, as if not learning anything more about it would mean it hadn't happened. We do strange things when we are hit with unbearable news. We hoped Sheila wasn't with him, but we knew she would be. They went everywhere together. It got worse when we learned about Marcia, then Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin.
I learned later that our fundraiser was the last time the Wellstone family, including sons Mark and David, was together. Everyone who died on the flight, except for Tom Lapic and the pilots, was here that night, ebullient and celebratory.
After the memorial service --which happened the way it did due to exhaustion and raw grief, not forethought -- one of the Wellstone brothers asked me if I had photos of that wonderful night. I was sure that I did.
Jim had grabbed a throw-away camera from a kitchen drawer while Paul was speaking and had snapped a bunch of pictures, but due to the quality of the camera every photo he had taken was over-exposed, illuminating the backs of heads or a door way. The few images he did have of Paul or Sheila were all washed out and, well -- ghostly. I called other friends who had brought cameras and they reported the same thing. No photos from the night had turned out. I called the campaign, as I knew they'd had a camera here. "Yes," I was told, "Will was taking pictures with the new digital." Later I found out that Will had the same camera on the flight. It was gone.
A week or so later, working on what was now the Mondale campaign, a woman approached me and said she had been at the fundraiser and that her daughter had photos. Her daughter, she added, has learning disabilities, so the photos were out of focus and oddly framed, but would I like to see them? Of course.
They were indeed blurry and reflected the young woman's different viewpoint. Still, I flipped through them, making out this shape, that shadow. And then, there it was, one close-up photo of Paul, in perfect focus, with just a slight smile on his face. It was the only photo taken that night that caught him.
That photo is now on our refrigerator and, as dear and familiar to me as it is, what I wouldn't give to have a new one -- say taken last week. More to the point, what I wouldn't give to have his passionate courageous voice back in the Senate. It seems like yesterday -- it seems like a lifetime ago.
Paul and Sheila Wellstone, Marcia, Will, Mary and Tom, rest in peace.