Remembering Wellstone: On anniversary of tragedy, late senators' son invokes his legacyThe name Wellstone is still seen in Minnesota on the iconic green signs — no campaign slogan or other information necessary — and 25 buildings and programs bear the family name.
By: Tammy Francois, Lake County News Chronicle
Ten years ago, just 12 days before the 2002 election for which he was running for a third term, a plane crash claimed the life of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, and campaign staffers Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy, and Will McLaughlin. The pilot and his crewmate were also killed.
The party was flying north to attend the funeral of a friend — Wellstone opting to do so instead of appearing at a campaign event in the Twin Cities with Sens. Edward Kennedy and Tom Daschle and former Vice-President Walter Mondale.
“That is one of the things that no one ever knew that was a legacy of my dad,” said Wellstone’s son David, “he had a knack for a personal stuff.”
The name Wellstone is still seen in Minnesota on the iconic green signs — no campaign slogan or other information necessary — and 25 buildings and programs bear the family name.
Left behind to grieve the profound loss of their parents and sister, were brothers David and Mark. The brothers were among the core group of people who went on to form Wellstone Action in the months after the senator’s death. The organization provides training to candidates, campaign staff and community activists to practice politics the “Wellstone way,” according to the organizations website. The brothers now serve as chairmen of the board of directors.
The adjustment to life without their influential parents, however, had its ups and downs. A book written and recently released by David Wellstone gives his account.
After the death of his parents and sister, Wellstone left Minnesota and sequestered himself and his two children on property he bought in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. He eventually applied himself to the hands-on work of “building rock walls and organic gardens and creating this place of beauty,” he said.
Today that place, Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, is a nonprofit that strives to “bring together people in a creative environment and commonly develop new approaches to creating a better, more sustainable world,” according to its mission statement.
To hear of the center and to see him now, energetically bouncing one leg as he drinks his coffee — grimacing because it was so hot — gesturing animatedly and smiling with a broad grin reminiscent of his mother, few would guess that there was a time when he was immobilized by grief.
“I talk about it in the book. I was getting foreclosure notices,” he said, but he was unable to lift the shadow that had fallen over his life. He recalled watching a utility worker turn off the water to his home because he couldn’t generate the energy to open and pay the bills. Leaving mail unopened, he said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio last month, came after he received and opened a box containing some of the personal effects found at the scene of the crash that killed his family members, including a partially melted wedding ring and a campaign pin.
Then there was another bill however, one that would mark a new beginning for the son of the late senator, but not without significant challenges of its own. Wellstone received a call from a former colleague of his father who had been carrying on the effort to pass a bill requiring insurance companies to cover mental health and addictions treatment. The bill eventually became known as the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.
Paul Wellstone had been working on a bill for six years at time of his death but in 2006, when David Wellstone was asked to become involved in efforts to get the bill passed, the legislation had been weakened — no longer representing the bill his father wrote.
“It was his bill in name only,” said the younger Wellstone, “I had to decided what I wanted to come of it. That got me into the fight … because I wanted to make the bill represent [Paul Wellstone] in a meaningful way.”
The bill was enacted Oct. 3, 2008 due to efforts by proponents of the bill on both sides of the aisle, including Kennedy, a Democrat, and Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota.
“I never thought any bill would take 12 years to pass. It has been 12 long years, but it's worth every minute of the effort,” Ramstad said in an interview with MPR after the bill’s passage.
Wellstone also expressed his sentiments to MPR, “I'm ecstatic… I want to pinch myself. In my family, this was a huge moment. To have my dad's legacy be this law is a great thing.”
His children grown, Wellstone has returned to Minnesota and now lives in St Paul with his wife, Leah, who is a therapist. His first book, “Becoming Wellstone: Healing from Tragedy and Carrying on My Father's Legacy” came out last month.
Although the book was released close to the anniversary of the death of his parents and sister, Wellstone said that wasn’t his plan, in fact it was his publisher who called it to his attention.
Once he started, he said the book just came naturally.
“It was an easy book to write, it was right there. It only took a few months to write,” Wellstone said. He has been appearing all over the state to talk about the book, but when asked if he thought he had another book “right there” and ready to be written, he paused.
“Maybe a book about the discourse in politics…things have changed pretty significantly,” he said referring to the sometimes vitriolic rhetoric that has become more commonplace in recent years.
He said, however, that his priority is not writing another book. He wants to continue the work he started in 2006.
“My real focus is on mental health and addiction parity because the fight really needs to continue. The reputation my folks built up — I take that seriously. I want to do good work. It helps me make sense of what happened.”
A remembrance service was held in Eveleth on Oct. 25, with a gathering in Iron afterward. An estimated 200 people gathered at the Paul Wellstone Memorial and Historic Site to be a part of the event in spite of the raw weather.
The site’s circular path is surrounded by tall trees and large stones have been placed there in memory of the Wellstones, Lapic, McEvoy and McLaughlin. Over the years visitors have placed tokens, smaller stones and notes around the markers — tangible symbols of connection and respect.
David Wellstone and his brother Mark were not present at the service, although David attended one held earlier in the month in the Twin Cities. He said that he understands that people want to mark the anniversary with an event, but he said, “for us it’s every day.”