Wellstone’s legacy lives on

Five years after the senator’s death, his influence is still felt

On a grassy knoll with a sweeping view of Lake Calhoun, a large granite boulder mined in Minnesota marks the resting place for one of the state’s most beloved politicians.

Framed by a majestic pine tree, the gravesite of Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila and their daughter Marcia is steeped in natural beauty. The site is serene, yet at the same time infused with life. Just beyond the wrought-iron fence framing Southwest’s Lakewood Cemetery, people walk, run and bike along the path circling Lake Calhoun. Children in strollers and dogs on leashes bask in the fall sunshine and people casually wander out onto a small dock.

It’s a picturesque site that became the final resting place for the Wellstones five years ago after their plane crashed near Eveleth, Minn. on Oct. 25, 2002. Hardly a day goes by without someone visiting the site, said Lakewood Cemetery President Ron Gjerde.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) and Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) visit the Wellstone grave each year before the start of the Minnesota Legislative session to gather inspiration. Hornstein met Wellstone in the early 1980s and said he was not only a mentor, but is the reason Hornstein is in the state Legislature.

"There’s a whole generation of us who are community organizers, as Paul was, and who decided to seek elected office because of Paul’s inspiration and example that one can work for social justice and be an organizer and it’s not mutually exclusive of elected office," Hornstein said.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie can see the Wellstone grave from his home across the street in the ECCO neighborhood, and he draws similar inspiration from the senator’s legacy. Ritchie worked with Wellstone during the 1980s on farming issues and was impressed by his passion. Wellstone’s death prompted Ritchie to get active in making sure Minnesotans were mobilized and encouraged to vote.

"I think Paul’s death … stopped a lot of people in their tracks and had us think, ‘What are we doing with our lives?’" Ritchie said.

Ritchie attended Camp Wellstone — an intense program that provides hands-on training in grassroots politics for citizen activists and people interested in running for office — and ran a successful campaign for secretary of state using the principles he learned there. The camp is one of the initiatives of Wellstone Action, a national center founded in 2003 to keep Wellstone’s legacy alive by teaching others his unique style of progressive politics.

"We want to train and teach others to step out and be active in public life because that was what Paul was all about," Wellstone Action Executive Director Jeff Blodgett said in an interview last year.

Wellstone is one of Minnesota’s political giants, best remembered for campaigning on a rickety green bus and unapologetically pushing a progressive agenda.

"Watching him speak was a physical activity. The people in the audience would rock on their heels and stand on their tiptoes as Wellstone’s voice rose with excitement," wrote Bill Lofy, who worked on Wellstone’s 1995 reelection campaign, in his book "Paul Wellstone: The Life of a Passionate Progressive." "At the end of his speech, he left an audience of cheering, smiling people, eager to support his
campaign."

His work in the Senate continued to touch people’s lives. Ritchie was about to give a speech for a conference on family farms in Kentucky when a young woman from the hotel’s front desk came to his room in tears with the news that Wellstone’s plane had crashed.

"Before I could really react," Ritchie explained, "she said, ‘My father was a coal miner, my brother is a coal miner and Paul Wellstone came here and held a hearing and worked on the question of mine safety. He actually cared about miners and working people.’ … She went on and thanked me on behalf of Minnesota for sending somebody who cared so much to Washington."

Linden Hills resident Pete Dross met the Wellstones while he was a student at Carleton College in the late 1970s. They worked together to protest some of the college’s investments and became friends. Dross went on to work at the Center for Victims of Torture, and he recalls how the Wellstones were dedicated to the center’s mission.

The Wellstones leave behind a legacy of hope in their firm belief that individual citizens can make the world a better place, Dross said. "They believed it and they walked it."

Ritchie spoke at a gathering of remembrance held at the College of St. Catherine to mark the five-year anniversary of Wellstone’s death. Although no official events were planned at Lakewood Cemetery, Gjerde said Wellstone’s gravesite will soon be included in a publication that provides cemetery visitors with information about some of the most prominent people buried at Lakewood. Visitors can use the publication to give themselves a self-guided tour.

Yet Wellstone’s mark extends far beyond the granite stone carved with his name.

"One thing he liked to say quite often and that I refer to whenever I do my political community work is that politics is about improving people’s lives," Hornstein said. "He was doing this to improve people’s lives, whether it was farmers who were struggling or workers losing their jobs or just giving a voice to people who wouldn’t have had a voice."

The reverence with which people across the United States still talk about Paul and Sheila Wellstone, even five years after their death, is an indication of the impact their work made, Dross said.

"People talk about how their death was a loss for the nation and not just Minnesota," he said. "Their impact was obviously felt here, but I think they inspired people across the country."