Wellstone remembered 10 years later

Paul Wellstone

By T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Rep. Denise Dittrich remembers hearing the news of the plane crash while handing out stickers at a Halloween parade in Anoka.

“It was like a JFK moment — you knew exactly where you were,” she said.

On the morning of Oct. 25, 2002, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, wife Sheila, daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, and three campaign staffers boarded a Beechcraft King Air in St. Paul to fly to Eveleth to attend the funeral of a steelworker.

Wellstone, seeking a third term in the Senate, was in a tight race against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

The election was less than two weeks away.

As the Beechcraft approached the Eveleth airport on that Friday, passengers might have gazed at the muted tones of late autumn below.

But the pilots let the Beechcraft’s airspeed fatally dip, crash investigators later determined.

The plane stalled and dove into a wooded area.

All aboard were killed.

Outside the Wellstone campaign office on University Avenue in St. Paul the sidewalk soon filled with flowers, flickering candles, notes of loss and love.

National media soon gathered in the street.

Some 20,000 attended a memorial service at the University of Minnesota.

The loss was painful.

Paul David Wellstone Jr., in his book “Becoming Wellstone,” recalls receiving a package at home some time after the crash.

Opening it, the senator’s son discovered personal items culled from the plane wreckage.

Among these was a partially melted wedding ring and a burnt Wellstone campaign button reeking of jet fuel.

Shocked, Wellstone crumpled to the floor.

Paul Wellstone was born and grew up in Arlington, Va.

In 1963, Wellstone married Sheila Ison and Wellstone recalled being one of the few university students pushing a baby carriage around campus.

Rick Kahn of Minnetonka, a close friend of the Wellstone family, said the couple were deeply committed to each other — a team.

“They always wanted to be together. They were in all of this together,” he said.

“That was always the case. A remarkable, even an inspirational thing,” Kahn said.

It was at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, that Wellstone distinguished himself as a championship wrestler.

Physicality was part of Wellstone, man and politician.

Wellstone intensely exercised six days a week.

He once delighted an Anoka County parent who told Wellstone their son was a wrestler by immediately breaking into a wrestler’s stance as if ready to grapple with the boy.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, in an email said it was Wellstone’s love of wrestling that stood out in his mind.

“I always thought of Paul Wellstone as a fighting liberal — a great happy warrior in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey. But he was also just great at connecting with people because of his enthusiasm for life,” Winkler wrote.

Wellstone thought a lingering ache in a leg was the result of an old sports injury.

But in February of 2002 he announced that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system.

He downplayed the disability.

For the full story, see the Thursday, Oct. 18 print edition of the Times.