Wellstones, crash victims remembered 10 years after their deaths

Sen. Tom Harkin
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, wipes water from a rock displaying the name of Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila Wellstone Thursday, October 25, 2012 at the Paul Wellstone Memorial and Historic Site near Eveleth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Although the weather was frigid and the occasion sad, the mood was celebratory at a remembrance Thursday for Minnesota's late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Nearly 200 people braved freezing temperatures on the Iron Range to pay tribute to Wellstone. The senator, along with his wife and daughter, three aides, and two pilots, died ten years ago in a plane crash in the forest outside Eveleth.

People first gathered under a small tent at the Wellstone Memorial site, a quiet spot in the woods near where the plane came down.

They then moved to a nearby town hall, and one by one, family members, supporters and colleagues rose to share their memories. A few themes quickly emerged. First, that Wellstone was a man of almost maniacal energy.

Franken shares a laugh
U.S. Sen. Al Franken laughs at remarks by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 at the Clinton town hall in Iron Junction, Minn. Franken, Harkin and others were gathering to remember the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and others on the 10th anniversary of his death in a fatal plane crash.
Photo by Derek Montgomery for MPR

U.S. Sen. Al Franken did an impression of Wellstone ordering breakfast: "I want those eggs, those are the best eggs I've ever had, I love those eggs, I want that toast, that's great toast."

Franken was a longtime friend of Wellstone's who eventually would win his seat in the U.S. Senate. Franken asked Wellstone's son, David, if there was truth to a story that Wellstone would run up and down the sidelines at his kids' soccer games.

"But get this," Franken said David told him. "I ran cross country in high school, and my dad would run the entire course, on the side of the course."

That energy permeated his political style. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Wellstone taught her the joy of campaigning, of riding city buses and shaking countless hands. She said Wellstone just loved people. Even ten years after his death, Klobuchar said when she tells someone in Washington she's from Minnesota, they'll say, "I know Paul."

"And it's not always the senators, or the senior staff, it's usually the tram operator, Darrell, who's had disabilities and worked there for 25 years, the secretary in the front office, the cops at the door," Klobuchar said. "Because he treated every single person that he met there, that he worked with, with such dignity."

Memorial gathering
People gather at the Paul Wellstone Memorial and Historic Site Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 on the 10th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Senator Paul Wellstone and others near Eveleth, Minn.
Photo by Derek Montgomery for MPR

That love of people also applied to Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate. Wellstone spoke highly of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, even though politically they were polar opposites, recalled St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O'Neil, who worked as a community organizer with Wellstone before his run for Senate.

"If you love people, you do love your enemies too," O'Neil said. "I think we all know there's something we can love in everybody, and Paul was a master of finding that something."

Wellstone championed issues like education, mental health, and along with his wife, Sheila, preventing violence against women. He also voted against the resolution authorizing the Iraq war weeks before his death.

His best friend in the Senate, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, gave the remembrance's final speech. He recalled the phone call to tell him that Wellstone had died. He was heading home from a campaign event.

"We were going down the highway, and something came over me that I hadn't experienced in my adult lifetime, and I broke down and bawled like a baby," Harkin said. "I've never told anybody this. And I couldn't stop."

Harkin echoed what many people at the event said.

"That we can't waste our time in remorse and regret. You got to get up every morning, to dedicate yourself to the same kind of social and economic justice, and peace and brotherhood and sisterhood that Paul and Sheila Wellstone stood for."

• Follow Dan Kraker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dankraker

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.