Five long, dark years. Remembering Paul and Sheila

October 25, 2007 by susan
Paul and Sheila Wellstone

On this day in 2002, Paul and Sheila Wellstone, along with their daughter Marcia, three friends and two pilots, died in a crash that tore out our hearts.
Six days earlier they had all been at our house for a jam-packed celebratory fundraiser. Lines spilled out the doors, back and front, and people had brought him folksy gifts -- a loaf of baked bread, a customized T-shirt, a favorite book.
It was celebratory because also on this day five years ago Paul's poll numbers had spiked up six points, putting him safely ahead of Norm Coleman. It was the first poll taken after the "political suicide" of his 'no' vote on invading Iraq. And the rest is indeed history -- and what a sorry chapter it is. Please read on.

On the day they died the Star Trib called me and asked me to write about what the loss of Sheila meant to women. Sheila and I had worked together on various projects to end domestic violence and we were friends. At first I said I couldn't do it. I couldn't stop crying long enough to think or type. But then I thought of Sheila, and I pictured her in the heavens giving me a kick in the pants to get going, so I did. It wasn't great writing, but I got it in on a two hour deadline, and that's pretty much how my big-time "career" at the Strib was launched.
A year later I wrote the piece below. And I think I've written three or four op-eds about them since, at least so many that my editor cautioned me against writing myself into an all-Wellstone-all-the-time box. He was right, so I switched to the all-Bushco-all-the-time box.
Paul would have beaten Norm, and that would have made a difference, but in truth, not enough. His voice would have continued to ring out -- alone, and boy do we miss that voice, but with the Cheney et al putsch already underway, I doubt there's much that even St. Paul could have done. What a long dark stretch it's been.
Let's hope the light at the end of the tunnel isn't a train coming at us.
Published on Sunday, October 26, 2003 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, formerly known as a newspaper.

"He's dead, get over it!" reads the bumper sticker seen around town in the state that once inspired the term "Minnesota Nice." The "he," of course, is Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died with his wife, daughter and colleagues in a fiery crash in the tamarack bogs of northern Minnesota one year ago this weekend.

Those who sport that withering sentiment, on their bumpers or in their hearts, don't deserve a further thought. But those who lost their lives do. We remember them, we mourn them -- and we know all too well that they are dead.

Veterans know it, from the absence of any voice in the Senate to question the shoddy treatment of our armed forces -- those serving heroically yet indefinitely in Iraq, those lying injured in substandard medical barracks back home, those facing pay cuts and reduced benefits for their sacrifices, those being buried at services their commander in chief has chosen not to attend.

Working people know it, when they see their benefits cut, their pay frozen, their pension funds depleted and their opportunities dead-ended by the loss of nearly 3 million jobs since President Bush took office.

Teachers know it, as they grapple with overcrowded classrooms, rigid and unfunded mandates and slashed "extras" like art, music and gym.

Families know it, when they suffer financial catastrophe because the insurance industry won't cover treatment for their mentally ill children.

Women and children know it, when they find that the programs that once offered them health and safety from domestic violence -- programs for which Paul and Sheila fought -- are no longer funded.

Voters know it, as they watch presidential contenders quibble
over who did or didn't oppose the war in Iraq, as Paul did with his courageous "no" vote in the final days of his toughest campaign.

Old-school Republicans -- and just about everyone else -- know it, when only a few bubbles of dissent swirl in the wake of a proposal to spend $87 billion more for a vague and bloated nation-building scheme in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Seniors, farmers, environmentalists, immigrants, firefighters, parole officers, nurses and parents know it -- as do, most of all, the surviving families of those who died.

But tragedy often begets action.

In just one year Wellstone Action, a nonprofit organization designed to educate and motivate people to get engaged in the grass-roots political process, has gotten off to a vigorous start, conducting Camp Wellstone training sessions across the nation.

The Sheila Wellstone Institute, a program of Wellstone Action, has been created by a broad coalition of domestic violence organizations. (The institute will hold its first national conference in Minneapolis on Nov. 13, with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a leader in efforts to end domestic violence in America, as the keynote speaker.)

"Carry It Forward," a documentary film about the Wellstones, is underway, being funded by hundreds of small neighborhood house parties all over Minnesota. It will be released in time to inspire voters to turn out in the 2004 election.

So about that bumper sticker: Yes, he's dead. But in these new projects, wrought of grief and gilded by love, the spirits of the dead live on.

As for getting over it? Sorry, not an option. If you really want to help, rip that nasty bumper sticker off your car and get to work.

Posted in


Poet (not verified) | October 26, 2007 - 12:32pm

Thanks for the reminisences Susan, not being a Minnesotan i do not understand Wellstone as well as you do, but my favorite memory of Paul wellstone was his initial campaign ads mocking the political games played by candidates in those little mini-dramas.

That told me all I needed to know about the guy--he didn't take either himself of the campaign process all that seriously. What a refreshing break from business as usual.


susan | October 26, 2007 - 1:45pm

Those were great ads. They were really what put him on the map -- and into the senate.
Funny thing about Paul though is that in person he wasn't that long on humor. He was intense, impatient and in a lot of physical pain due to an old wrestling injury -- and then what later was diagnosed as early MS. Unlike the image in the ads, he did take himself rather seriously -- but the ads did capture his passion and energy.
The one with the humor and who didn't take him too seriously was Sheila. She softened him. She started the first campaign shy and short on confidence, but she grew into a major asset, and a terrific speaker in her own right.
When we first heard of the crash the first thing that flashed through our minds was, "Was Sheila with him?" because we knew she could step into the race and be every bit the senator he was. But even as we said it, we knew the answer, because they were always together. Theirs was one of those real-deal love affairs that still had sparks after all the years.
What we didn't expect was that their daughter Marcia was also on the plane. That was the extra heart break. She was scared of small planes -- they all were -- and almost didn't didn't go that morning. She called her husband saying the weather looked bad, she was reconsidering. He counseled her to get over her fears and to go. So many what-ifs.


Patrick (not verified) | October 26, 2007 - 4:10pm

I still have Paul and Sheila on the back of the bus as my wallpaper on my home computer. I was in Duluth that day and heard the news as I was about to take a tour of Glensheen Mansion. I could not bring myself to believe it despite the drive back to St. Paul with News Satellite Trucks and Black Crown Victorias with red lights flashing on dashboards in a parade in the other direction. The picture of a White Hearse on a country road on the front page of the paper forced me to accept what had happened.

After a period of mourning, extended by the tragic election that followed, I think of Paul and find the courage to fight for what is right and will do so for the rest of my life.


Patrick (not verified) | October 26, 2007 - 4:17pm

When I hear the comment: "Get over it, he's dead". I respond by asking them how long Jesus has dead?


barbara aka babs (not verified) | October 26, 2007 - 6:40pm

As is so often the case with we flawed humans, I never thought much about what we really had until we'd lost him/them forever. The vacuum that has totally sucked the courage out of Democrats (save, perhaps, for Dodd with a sprinkling of Waxman and Leahy) came in the aftermath of the startling and appalling "win" of Norm Coleman. You know how spare rib cartilage gets all soft and bendy and kinda weird after it's cooked for a long, long time in moist heat? That's my working image of Democratic leadership. Let's see. Harry Reid. Paul Wellstone. Nancy Pelosi. Paul Wellstone. Every freaking presidential candidate. Paul Wellstone. Hmm. Bad juju in the Demosphere. Who will channel Paul? And before you respond reflexively, let me remind you that Wellstone was full of sound and fury, but it signified something. So blowhards need not apply.


MLS (not verified) | October 26, 2007 - 7:51pm

Yes, it was a very sad day 5 years ago - the loss of a good
man along with his wife and daughter. Every year, at this time, let us be reminded of Paul Wellstone who represented the State of Minnesota with honesty and integrity and whose goal was to serve as Senator not for reason to control but for love of his state and of his country. He served us well and I thank him for the service he gave. And thank you, Susan, for
sharing your memories.


paul miller (not verified) | October 26, 2007 - 10:08pm

after 7 years so much to get over:
bush stole the first election, "get over it"
bush stole the second election. "get over it"
bush lied about weapons of mass destruction, "get over it"
torture at abu gharaib, "get over it"
administration bypasses fisa court, "get over it"

thank God the right wingers are so ready to move on so we con't get caught up in hang wringing while we prepare to attack Iran, eviscerate our civil liberties, and fund the current wars to infinity and beyond