Paul Wellstone: a teacher in life, and also in death

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Shannon Drury
Shannon Drury is a Minneapolis-based writer, at-home parent and community activist.
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I met Paul Wellstone for the first time at an antipoverty event I attended with a high school friend, a girl named Amy whose parents were supporters of his campaign. I shared Wellstone's politics, yes, but I really admired his day job as professor at Carleton College. In 1989, the same year that Prof. Wellstone announced his candidacy, I decided that Carleton was my top college choice, due in large part to the school's reputation for sheltering quirky intellectuals of Wellstone's type. This was an apt description of me as a high school student, though I wasn't so dim that I failed to understand that "quirky" meant awkward and "intellectual" meant weird. This guy was not your typical politician.

Wellstone spoke powerfully that day, but I can't say that I was as eloquent when Amy introduced us. I remember shaking his hand and blurting that I'd matriculated at Carleton, to which he nodded his approval. I asked if he would be joining the crowd as it marched to an abandoned warehouse to defend the homeless folks squatting there. Wellstone replied that while he supported us, it wouldn't look good for him to get arrested, the ambition of most of the assembled. I argued otherwise -- an arrest for civil disobedience would look totally awesome. Wellstone laughed and turned to the knot of supporters clamoring for his time. Amy looked appalled, but I was a teenage idealist and proud of it.

By the time Election Day rolled around, I was a freshman at Carleton, voting in my first federal contest. That evening, the campus erupted: Our teacher, a quirky intellectual of the highest order, was now to be a member of the United States Senate.

Time passed. Amy followed me to Carleton, and we both had our degrees in hand by the time Wellstone won his 1996 reelection. In 1999, Amy married her Carleton sweetheart in a ceremony on campus attended by the senator and his wife. In that bucolic, ivy-and-stone setting, we felt safe -- each one of us was home.

By 2002, all illusions of safety were shattered. Terrifying airplane attacks one year earlier cast a grim shadow over that year's Senate campaign, Wellstone's third. One more airplane crash, the morning of Oct. 25, ended the campaign: Paul, his wife Sheila, their daughter and five others died that day.

I called Amy that terrible afternoon, offering my condolences to her family. Amy surprised me by offering her sympathy in return. "I thought of you right away," she said. "I knew how much he meant to you." At the time I didn't understand her, muddled as I was by grief and its close relative, guilt.

Since his election, I had counted on Wellstone, my senator, to do my political work for me. The last candidate for whom I'd phone-banked was Gov. Bill Clinton. I stopped rallying and marching altogether.

I realized then what Amy already knew: Ideals are far more difficult to grieve than people are.

When Wellstone died, I felt I'd lost my voice. When the aftermath cost his party the Senate seat, I thought I'd lose my mind. But these events combined to reawaken that teenager's impulse to do something totally awesome.

I started marching again. I fought for every one of the 312 votes that ensured Al Franken's win in 2008: I hosted a house party, I made phone calls, I wrote letters, I yelled at rallies. I didn't wait for someone else to do it for me. In 2010, I was elected to my fourth term as Minnesota NOW's state president. I work.

Our connection began with Carleton, the place from which Wellstone and I began our respective journeys in 1990: one moving from professor to senator, and one changing from child to adult. Though these paths changed us, I let my 1990 ideal of Paul Wellstone remain constant, a mistake that only became clear on Oct. 25, 2002.

Ideals aren't where we connect. We seek a better world in unity with people, whether we're marching together, listening to one another speak, or just joining hands. Paul Wellstone was never my professor, but after his death, I became his student.

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Shannon Drury, president of Minnesota NOW, is a writer, at-home parent and community activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women's Press, with additional work appearing in HipMama, Literary Mama and Skirt magazines. She blogs at www.theradicalhousewife.com and is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.