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Sunday, August 14, 2005

an evening with Paul Wellstone

It was fall of 1996 and my friends David and Lisa invited me to the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis for a fish fry campaign stop for Senator Paul Wellstone.

It was late in the campaign, and Senator Wellstone was not guaranteed of defeating Rudy Boschwitz, his Republican opponent. He might have had people telling him that attending a moderately-attended fish fry in one our nation's poorest urban neighborhoods was not the most pragmatic move. But as the staff at the center laid out the steaming trays of lightly-breaded walleye and heaping piles of delicious Northern Minnesota wild rice, there in line with the rest of us, was Senator Wellstone and his wife, Sheila.

They sat at the head table and enjoyed their meal...like the rest of the crowd of two hundred or so regular folks, largely of Native American descent, in the gymanasium. Paul and Sheila then listened to the speeches of the down-ticket candidates. They clearly listened to each speech and appreciated it. Ninety minutes had passed and the Senator had not said a public word.

When it came time for Senator Wellstone to talk...the room grew quiet. This crowd knew the Senator. He was no stranger. And he simply did what Paul Wellstone always did. He gave the speech of his life. He talked about justice, about community, about specific programs and specific funding measures, he talked about kids and education, he talked about health care to a crowd that KNEW what his proposals meant...and he talked about the neighborhood as if he'd actually spent time in it. And he had.

Now, culturally, an American Indian audience is not traditionally a vocal one. This crowd was no different. Senator Wellstone didn't get huge applause lines, or amens from the crowd. But that did not stop him. He had something to say. And he was very specific about it.

As he closed his speech he mentioned how important it was that he had shared this meal, how important the Native American community was to him, and how proud he was to be their guest.

He was clearly moved to be standing where he was, and, pausing in that moment, in conclusion, he LEAPT atop the cafeteria table in front of him and stood so he could make eye contact with everyone in the room. "I am here tonight," he said, "to promise you that I will fight for you, and take your concerns to Washington D.C....I am here for you, and I am so proud, so proud to be your Senator and to serve you and the State of Minnesota."

That was Paul Wellstone.

It came as no surprise, when I heard the news of his death, that he and Sheila and their daughter Marcia were on a plane, late in the campaign, not to pursue votes, but to honor a commitment to a friend and to attend a private funeral.

That was Paul Wellstone too.

I am writing this tonight, because, like so many people whom Paul Wellstone inspired...when I think of that evening, it almost feels like his passion, his words, his commitment to justice and to regular people are alive and burning before me. He was simply unforgettable. He was not perfect, but I wouldn't trade a single of his imperfections if it meant giving up the vastness, the profoundness of his heart, and the depth of his commitment to justice.

Paul Wellstone was right about community, about coalition, he was right about what's really important. And when we lost himall of us lost something that we will never replace...a truly compassionate, wise leader.

I'm not the only one with a Paul Wellstone story. There are many of us. I pass this story on to you in hopes that it might light a small torch of inspiration.

Senator Wellstone was irreplaceable. That does not mean we don't need many, many more leaders like him.

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3 Comments:

  • Excellent post. We lived in Eden Prairie when Paul Wellstone first ran for the Senate. He was a special man and a great American. We lost our most human and passionate voice when he died.

    Thanks for sharing this memory with us.

    By Anonymous Words Have Power, at 7:30 AM  

  • Thanks for sharing this post, and keeping the memory of Senator Wellstone alive.

    By Blogger Kathleen B., at 3:58 PM  

  • Paul Wellstone was my professor for two years in college and was a tremendous inspiration for me and for my current work in organizing. I am honored that I was able to participate in his memorial service/symposium in the winter of 2003 at Carleton College.

    By Blogger NathanHJ, at 5:22 PM  

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