David Wellstone on tragedy, grief, and re-entering public life

David Wellstone
David Wellstone, photographed Monday, Oct. 15, 2012 at MPR News in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

It's been nearly 10 years since David Wellstone drove to rural Eveleth, Minn. and saw the fiery wreckage of the plane crash that killed his father, Sen. Paul Wellstone, his mother Sheila, sister Marcia, and five others.

The crash site was horrific, and the months that followed blurred together as David Wellstone struggled to understand what had happened. Minnesota had lost a senator. David and his brother Mark had lost a father — and a mother and a sister.

"I shut the emotions down," David Wellstone said in an interview this week with MPR News. "It was a very surreal experience."

He stopped cooking, stopped shopping, and stopped doing much of anything. One day, he received a big, strange box in the mail. He opened it up and the smell of jet fuel filled the room. He stared in disbelief at a partially melted wedding ring and a burnt campaign button. Someone had accidentally sent him everything from the crash site.

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After that, he stopped opening the mail, too.

The path through grief has been difficult, but in recent years, David Wellstone has re-entered public life. He helped lead a successful fight to pass legislation that requires insurance companies to provide equal coverage for mental health and chemical dependency treatment. He moved back to Minnesota and wrote a memoir, "Becoming Wellstone: Healing from Tragedy and Carrying on My Father's Legacy", released this year.

Sen. Paul Wellstone
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., addresses the Iowa AFSCME convention, Sunday, June 29, 1997, in Des Moines, Iowa.
AP Photo/Rodney White

In the book, he recounts how he grieved for his family. He called his parent's answering machine constantly, just to hear the sound of his mother's voice. He moved to California in search of solace. His father had always been his advisor, and he struggled to plot a path forward by himself.

"I felt like it was all some kind of horrible trick being played, and if I could only figure it out, I could call him somehow, or see him, and he'd be there advising me again," he wrote.

David Wellstone fondly recalls growing up as the son of a progressive father who was equally passionate about his son's cross-country races and his opposition to the Gulf War.

At times, his father's passion led to some embarrassing situations in unexpected places, like the waiting room of a doctor's office.

"Before I knew it, he would have spotted the representative of a pharmaceutical company and began interrogating him at length as everyone in the waiting room feigned interested in years-old issues of People Magazine," he wrote.

" 'Are you pimping for the drug companies?' my father would ask. 'Are you?' "

Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and his wife Sheila jog to their campaign bus after casting their ballots in their hometown of Northfield, Minn., Tuesday morning, Nov. 6, 1990. Wellstone defeated Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in the general election.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

David Wellstone recalls traveling with his father to western Minnesota to meet with farmers protesting the construction of power lines across their fields. Some of the farmers and organizers toppled power lines and went to jail, a struggle recounted by Paul Wellstone in his book "Powerline".

"Those weren't embarrassing moments," David Wellstone said. "I think they shaped me."

On the picket line in Austin, Minn. during the Hormel strike or at a farmer's kitchen table, the younger Wellstone would sometimes ask his father, "Why are we here?"

His father's answer made an impression.

"He would say 'We're here because this isn't just their fight. It's our fight, too, and when you see something that you think is wrong, you stand up and you help those that are fighting that fight,' " he said.

Paul Wellstone's rise from political science professor at Carlton College to the U.S. Senate captured the imagination of progressives around the country. He arrived in Washington, D.C. in January 1991 on the green school bus that became famous in his underdog campaign to defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz the year before. His vote against a resolution authorizing U.S. military force against Iraq made him a hero to those who opposed the war, but it also made him a target for death threats, as detailed in Wellstone's FBI file.

Throughout Paul Wellstone's life as an organizer in rural Minnesota and a senator in Washington, his wife Sheila held the family together, David Wellstone said.

Wellstone plane crash scene
Federal investigators sift through debris Oct. 27, 2002, from the twin engine plane that crashed two days earlier near Eveleth, Minn,. killing Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia and several others.
AP Photo/Jim Mone, File

"She was the glue to our family," he said. "She took care of everything. We had a different meal every night. She did the taxes. She helped fix the furnace. She worked as a librarian. She did it all."

Sheila Wellstone also advocated on behalf of those affected by domestic violence. "That was her legacy," David Wellstone said. "As well as, from a personal standpoint, her legacy was ... being the kind of mother you dream of."

His parents' legacy also helped him in the grieving process. One day, he received a phone call from a former colleague of his father's who told him that Congress was about to pass a watered-down version of the mental health parity legislation originally co-authored by his father. David Wellstone decided to join the fight to pass a stronger version of the bill.

"It spurred me into action, and then once I started working on it, it gave me a mission," he said.

The bill passed in 2008. The effort, he said, "took three years of a lot of hard work (and) hundreds of meetings, but it re-engaged me in life."

Remembering Wellstone
Gov. Mark Dayton spoke about Paul Wellstone Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 at Macalester College during a remembrance of the 2002 plane crash that killed Paul and Sheila Wellstone, their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson and campaign staff members Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic and Will McLaughlin.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

He added, "So I think while I helped pass that bill, it helped heal me."

Despite his involvement in the fight over mental health parity, David Wellstone said he does not have any desire to run for office.

"There aren't political ambitions," he said. "The ambitions are to do good work."

Oct. 25 marks the 10th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone, Sheila Wellstone, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, campaign staff members Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin, and two pilots, Richard Conry and Michael Guess.

Hundreds of people attended a remembrance ceremony earlier this month at Macalester College in St. Paul. Gov. Mark Dayton delivered the keynote address.

"Rest in peace, Paul," he said. "No, come to think of it, cause a ruckus up there."