For some of you from other states and other places in the world, it was 10 years ago this week that United States Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila, a former librarian turned tireless crusader against domestic violence, were killed in a plane crash on a dreary, sleety October morning, just days before the 2002 election.
For many of you reading this, though, October 25, 2002 wasn’t the day that we lost U.S. Senator Wellstone and his wife. It was the day that we lost our friends, Paul and Sheila.
I worked on Paul’s ’96 reelection campaign as the statewide college campus coordinator, traveling all around the state in to start up Students for Wellstone groups and to register new student voters. That’s me in the middle of the photo, way back in the day, holding my Wellstone sign high while Paul and Sheila greet the Rondo Days Parade crowd, along with their grandson, from the back of the iconic green bus. What a bunch of crazy kids we were back then. I always relished the opportunities I had to travel with Paul and Sheila during those days, and to meet up with them on college campuses all around the great state of Minnesota. I learned so much from both of them along the way – not only from the things they said, but also from how they lived their lives. They felt the struggles of ordinary Minnesotans so profoundly and sincerely that they literally couldn’t help but fight for them with every ounce of their beings. Anyone who traveled with them, especially on those long drives somewhere in greater Minnesota, late at night, can recount the impossibility of getting either of them to rest when they were fired up about some story they had heard. I can still hear Paul’s voice so distinctly: “We gotta DO something about that!”
I feel those words every time I meet or hear a story of someone struggling or someone who feels they are without a voice in the systems affecting their lives. I can’t turn away. I know Paul and Sheila wouldn’t have. They would have found a way to DO something about it.
There was no better testament to the power of their irrepressible conviction to fight for the underdogs than the memorial wall that sprang up after their plane went down on that terrible October day ten years ago. After I heard the news, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like everything I believed in had been shattered into a million pieces. I remember just driving aimlessly for hours and sobbing uncontrollably… and like so many people who had come to know and love Paul and Sheila, I eventually ended up down at the campaign office, just to be near to people who could understand the absolute heartbreak I was feeling.
And there it was – the most miraculous and moving collection of tributes – growing by the minute as each new visitor laid their offerings on the sidewalk or attached them to the chain link fence. Disabled veterans, people suffering from mental illness, survivors of domestic violence – so many people who discovered their collective power and their shared voice because of Paul and Sheila Wellstone – they just kept coming, all night long, to pay their respects to the amazing couple who had fought so tirelessly for them. As I stood there, an auto worker from the nearby Ford plant approached, silently unlaced his work boots, placed them gently on the sidewalk, and walked away.
It is an experience and an image I will never forget as long as I live, and it lives on inside me as a resonant, recurring question:
When my time comes, today or someday far from now, what will my own “memorial wall” hold? For what will I have fought and with whom will I have stood? I hope the answer will be “justice for the underdogs” just like it always was for Paul and Sheila. May it be so for all of us who loved them so dearly, and who labor daily to keep their dreams alive.