Seven years ago: The legacy of Paul and Sheila Wellstone


Seven years ago on Oct. 25, a plane fell into the forest near Eveleth, Minnesota. All on board, including U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila and daughter Marcia, University of Minnesota prof and DFL associate chair Mary McEvoy, staffers Tom Lapin and William McLaughlin, and pilots Richard Conry and Michael Guess, died in the crash.

The greatest legacy of their lives and passing is the growth of robust grassroots leadership in Minnesota. I know dozens of people who changed their lives to work for change, from the young adjunct college instructor who is now a labor organizer to factory workers who started to engage in their local communities.

I like this video of Paul talking about grassroots leadership in October 2002, mostly for the fact that he speaks about ordinary people finding their voice in their communities.

Bluestem Prairie is a rural magazine for those who prefer take their corn with a progressive chaser and tongue planted firmly in cheek.

It’s not pie-in-the-sky talk. Seven years ago today, I was working on a state senate campaign in the Northfield. On the day the plane crashed, I attended two memorials quickly thrown together  by friends in Paul and Sheila’s hometown. One was a Carleton, where Paul taught before getting elected to the Senate, and the other was at the local UCC church. What struck me most at both places was not the well-known people who praised the fallen leader, but the common people who rose to tell their stories of how their dead mentor helped them improve their workplaces and their local communities.

Here’s to a man who understood that grassroots leadership isn’t about someone else being a “voice for the voiceless,” but sharing the tools that allow anyone to have a voice in working to make a better future.

If you like what he’s saying, and you have some extra coin, the next best way for honoring the Wellstones (after your own civic engagement) is to donate to Wellstone Action.

Bluestem will be publishing a story soon about not-so-progressive local leadership in Austin, Minnesota.