Wellstone remembered on 10th anniversary of crash

10:25 PM, Oct 25, 2012   |    comments
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  • Visitors at Wellstone Memorial in Eveleth
  • Paul and Sheila Wellstone in 2002

EVELYTH, Minn. - The stone monuments and trails that form the Wellstone Memorial seem to evoke a wide range of emotions for those who make the pilgrimage to this spot in the woods where his plane crashed 10 years ago.

Some are taken back to the crushing grief they felt on Oct. 25, 2002 when Paul Wellstone, a thriving two-term United States senator in the throes of a tough reelection campaign, lost his life.

Others smile as they retrieve fond memories of the man who defied convention with his passionate brand of grassroots, activist politics. The professor-turned-liberal-firebrand left an impression on friends and foes alike.

"Paul was a conscience," Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa told KARE Thursday. "He was a unique individual. We'll never see his like again."

Harkin was among those who gathered at the site near Eveleth to mark the 10th anniversary of the accident that claimed the lives of Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia, three campaign workers and both pilots.

"Paul was my closest, dearest friend in the Senate," Harkin explained. "But I have never been able to get up here to northern Minnesota to see this place. So after 10 years, I just wanted to come and remember."

Duluth poet LeAnn Littlewolf recited her poem, which is inscribed in one of the stones in the memorial. It was inspired by the story that eagles circled the scene of the crash that day in 2002.

"Though our time here is brief, an ancient truth circles with the eagles, that spirits never die. They stay alive in love and hope and eagles wings touching the sky."

As she spoke the scent of smoldering ceremonial cedar wafted through the air and large snowflakes began to fall on the memorial site.

Wellstone's friend Lisa Redovisch-Craig recalled that mood of  last campaign, as he worked to fend off a serious challenge by Republican Norm Coleman.

"They loved the work they did. They loved the people," she recalled. "To think of Paul or Will or Marcia or Mary then, they were always laughing. They were working extremely hard, but having fun while they worked."

The day of the crash Wellstone was slated to debate Coleman in Duluth, but made a side trip to the Evelyth to attend a funeral. The plane lost altitude in murky, cold skies and crashed three miles short of the airport, a mishap federal investigators eventually blamed on pilot error.

Todd Markuson, Marcia Wellstone Markuson's husband, recalled how the woods were scarred by wreckage and jet fuel when he first arrived at the site where his wife had died.

"I remember standing there looking around, and saying, 'How can this happen to me? How can this happen to all of us?' Right?" he said.

But a part of the healing process for Markuson was to read letters from his wife's students, telling how she had influenced their lives and given them the confidence to move ahead in life.

"Marcia's integrity and her enthusiasm for touching people's lives were instilled by Paul and Sheila at a very young age, and it's very comforting more me to know that Marcia's legacy still lives on in all those that she touched."

Several of those who saw Wellstone working a crowd said he never acted as if were superior to the average working people he met.

"Paul Wellstone will never be replaced by anybody," Gabriel Brisbois, a long-time Wellstone friend and member of the White Earth Ojibwa.

"He was a friend to auto mechanics, nurses, hotel cleaners, steelworkers, teachers, veterans and people of all walks of life."

Wellstone's thirst for interaction with regular people created challenges, at times, for those campaign volunteers and staffers who needed to keep in on schedule.

"When I drove Paul around I almost dreaded the site of stop light," George Sundstrom told the crowd that gathered in the falling snow near the memorial.

"If Paul saw two people, three people (he would be) out of the car! He'd be over talking to them. The light would change. The horns would honk behind us and he'd come running back again and wave to the people. I think they were waving back to him!"

Harkin said Wellstone's political legacy can't be measured in terms of legislative victories because he didn't shy away from taking controversial stands or landing on the losing side. But Wellstone's arguments for a more equitable society still resonate in the ongoing debate over the role of government in America.

The most tangible outgrowth is Wellstone Action, an organization that trains aspiring political activists in grassroots organizing strategies. Wellstone, a college professor by trade, organized struggling farmers and opponents to high voltage transmission lines long before his first run for office as a candidate.

"With his incredible energy and spirit, Paul put into action the belief that in order to succeed you have to work hard," Redovisch-Craig remarked. "And sometimes you have to agitate."

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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