Senator Paul Wellstone remembered

This story originally aired Oct. 25, 2007 on the 5th anniversary of the plane crash that claimed the life of Senator Paul Wellstone and seven others. Reporter John Croman, photographer Jim Douglas

MINNEAPOLIS -- Editor's note: The video report above is from Oct. 25, 2007

Paul Wellstone was a unique figure in Minnesota political history, a college professor who defied the odds as he rode a wave of grassroots progressive activism to the United State Senate.

Since his death in 2002 the word "Wellstone" has become shorthand for many for a set of values.

"Principle, integrity, honesty, convictions that you act on," Marcia Avner, a former aide and family friend, told KARE.

"I don't know of anybody else who would've voted against welfare reform right before an election. He also voted against the going to war in Iraq in the midst of his final campaign. That kind of courage carries people forward for a long time."

The North Carolina native and one-time college wrestler worked as a political science professor at Carleton College from 1969 to 1990, but worked tirelessly as a community organizer for a variety of underdog causes.

His oft-repeated phrase, "We all do better when we all do better" reflected his commitment to raising the plight of the impoverished and powerless.

Sen. Wellstone's voice was silenced Oct. 25, 2002 when the senator's private plane crashed on approach to the Eveleth Airport on Minnesota's Iron Range, killing all eight persons aboard. 

Wellstone, his wife Sheila and their daughter Marcia perished in the fiery crash along with campaign workers Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy plus pilot Richard Conry and his copilot Michael Guess.

As news spread Wellstone campaign headquarters in Saint Paul became heartbreak central.

"The shock was so extraordinary that I don't know anybody could take it in," Avner recalled. "There were hundreds and hundreds of people standing in the middle of University Avenue who just wanted a place to go, to grieve."

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a friend of the Wellstones, was at a conference in Kentucky and got the horrible news from a hotel clerk who knew he was from Minnesota.

"She was crying and said 'I think you should know there's a plane missing and Paul Wellstone's on the plane,' and she broke into tears," Ritchie remembered. "And I broke into a panic."

Ritchie told the clerk that Wellstone had spoke at his daughter's funeral, and the clerk said she had met the Senator when he came to through her little town five years earlier on his Southern Poverty Tour.

Wellstone's campaign manager, Jeff Blodgett, barely had time to grieve. The election was just 11 days away and Wellstone had been locked in a tight race with former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman at the time of the crash.

"I looked at my senior staff and I said, 'Now what do we do?' and someone piped up and said, 'Well I know Paul would say let's see this thing through," Blodgett told KARE.

In the ensuing political whirlwind former Vice President Walter Mondale agreed to step onto the DFL ticket. Legal battles erupted over absentee ballots.

And the entire nation tuned into a memorial service that turned partisan midway through, with impassioned speeches by the senator's son Mark Wellstone and longtime Wellstone friend Rick Kahn. 

It prompted a backlash from Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent, and Republicans who demanded equal time from the TV networks. Many analysts contend the uproar over the memorial service helped elect Coleman to the Senate.

The National Transportation Safety Board would later blame the accident on human error, determining the crew failed to maintain adequate air speed for the blustery weather conditions. 

A monument now marks the wooded area where the plane came down, and it draws thousands of visitors each year. The Wellstones were buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

But their legacy lived on in a new generation of activists.

"I think you find Paul Wellstone in the thousands of people who we've seen get involved in politics and public life since his death," Blodgett remarked.

Wellstone's high-energy brand of activism was distilled into a training program known as Camp Wellstone, run by the nonprofit Wellstone Action that took root after the senator's death.

"It's helping people get off the sidelines and get into the political fray."

Among the Camp Wellstone graduates is Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul, a nurse who teaches at St. Catherine's.

"The Wellstone spirit, it's not resting with Paul and Sheila but instead with all of us, if we choose to act on it," Rep. Murphy remarked.

"It takes a lot of hard work, but it's possible. I think, 'Well he did it. I can do that'."

Sheila's legacy was to pull the issue of domestic violence out of the shadows and into the spotlight. She helped organize the Silent Witness displays at the US Capitol Rotunda.

That's one of the reasons the words "Paul and Sheila Wellstone" grace the community centers, schools and programs that took on the Wellstone name.

It's an apt reflection of their team work through nearly four decades of marriage.

"It was an unspoken rule everyone on the staff understood, that they would connect for dinner," Avner explained. "That they would be together at the end of the day."

© 2017 KARE-TV


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