I first heard about Paul Wellstone when I started classes at Carleton College in the fall of 1982. Some of my football teammates made fun of his “radical” political positions. He was running for State Auditor against Arnie Carlson in a quixotic quest for political office.
I began to take him much more seriously when I signed up two years later for a class he taught called “Social Movements and Protest Politics.” The mid 80’s was a time of protest in rural Minnesota. Paul Wellstone was a significant part of those protests. I couldn’t help but sign up for a class from him.
It seemed that much of the state of Minnesota was upset about the many foreclosures that farmers suffered. Farmers had been encouraged by the banks and credit unions to borrow beyond their means. When land prices fell, the banks and credit unions pulled out the rug from underneath them through foreclosure. I had two uncles who went bankrupt; farmers were losing farms that had been in their family for generations; people were turning up at the foreclosure sales and throwing pennies at the auctioneers. Farmers were protesting at the State Capitol in large numbers and the farm protest movement, Groundswell originated in my home town of Worthington. I still remember the first meeting at Memorial Auditorium. I interviewed Bobbie Polzine, the leader of Groundwell and did my senior thesis at Carleton on how the people of Worthington viewed the social movement. My Dad and I called hundreds of people in Worthington to survey their impressions.
In the class I was expecting to experience a liberal professor—which I did—but the lasting impression of Paul on me was his authenticity. He was one of the few people who I’ve known who would risk his career, his reputation, and anything else that he had in order to share his beliefs. He was the poster child for “what you see is what you get.” There wasn’t a phony bone in his body. He always was willing to share the courage of his convictions.
I loved to listen to him speak, and I traveled with him to many rallies around the state. I still remember going with him to “take over” the local credit union in my hometown of Worthington. I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to call my parents from jail.
When I told him in the spring of 1986 that I had the opportunity to work with Cesar Chavez in California he encouraged me to go; when I told him a few years later I might go to seminary he thought it was a terrific idea because he always believed that the world wouldn’t change unless the church was part of that change. He wrote one of my recommendations for Union Seminary.
I stayed in touch with him after I graduated from Carleton. When I became a community organizer I spoke in a few of his classes about my experiences and enjoyed breakfast at his home. I never thought he would beat Rudy Boschwitz in 1990 as I saw his run like I viewed his run against Arnie Carlson in 1982. It was one of the great surprises of my life that he won that race.
I never talked to Paul after he became a Senator. I had always meant to catch up with him when he spoke at an event near me, but I was always too busy. I respected him from afar. I was not at all surprised that he made friends with many conservative Senators. Even though he disagreed with their positions he could see the humanity in another person.
I won’t forget what happened the late morning on October 25, 2002. My wife, Amy, came home in tears to tell me that Paul had died in an airplane accident. She put up a black drape over the Wellstone sign we had in our yard.
Amy and I drove up to Williams Arena a few days later to participate in the Memorial service. At the time I thought Rick Kahn’s speech was over the top, but I understood the grief he was feeling. For one of the few times in my life I cried at the loss that everyone in the Arena was experiencing.
Last Thursday Amy and I went to hear David Wellstone speak about his work regarding Mental Illness. I had never met him, but hearing him speak brought back many memories. Afterwards I stood in line to purchase his new book. When we talked I shared with him some of my experiences with Paul. He smiled and gave me a hearty handshake.
I’ve certainly “gotten over” the loss of Paul Wellstone. But on the tenth anniversary of his death I want to celebrate one of the most decent people I’ve ever met.