Local friends, supporters shocked by Wellstone’s death

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 26, 2002

John Severtson remembers meeting Paul Wellstone in 1989 when he was campaigning for his first term as a senator.

&uot;I was talking to someone and all of the sudden this little guy comes up to me and shakes my hand, and I don’t have a clue who he is. Little did I know how much he would mean for labor in the future,&uot; said Severtson, treasurer of the local 6803 steel workers union. &uot;It is a great loss for the state of Minnesota and for the country.&uot;

Severtson attended a prayer service at the Albert Lea Union Center Friday evening for the senator, who died earlier in the day, along with his wife, daughter and five others, in a plane crash near Eveleth, Minn.

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Wellstone’s dedication to liberal ideals was, for many, unmatched by any other politician. Known as a representative of the common man, Wellstone became a force in the Senate who didn’t work along party lines, but beliefs. His passion, energy and heart for his position will be missed dearly, say those who knew and admired him.

&uot;He knew what the working man was,&uot; said Dick Hagen, the chair of the local AFL-CIO, with long emotional pauses among each of his words. &uot;He was our spokesperson. When he stood up for the working people in this country it meant the world to us.&uot;

Hagen had met Wellstone on many occasions for unions and campaigns. Hagen remembers Wellstone as a man of great integrity, heart and enthusiasm.

Former Albert Lea mayor Dr. Niles Shoff met Wellstone on a few occasions as well.

&uot;I think it’s a really tragedy,&uot; he said. &uot;He was a very compassionate person, a good public servant.&uot;

Shoff met him at a dinner for former senator and vice president Walter Mondale and said he asked Wellstone about bills that the Senate was working on. A short time after their conversation, Wellstone sent Shoff a letter regarding the bills they’d talked about.

Lawyer Mark Anderson, a local DFLer, said, &uot;Whether you liked him or not, you had to agree that he had passion.&uot;

&uot;He represented a constituency that does not have a voice in politics. There isn’t anyone else in the Senate like him. He had certain moral values that he held dear. He truly tried to bring them forward in this political work.&uot;

Bill Bryson of Alden, who has lobbied for environmental groups and knew Wellstone, said the senator was always receptive.

&uot;He was always interested in our cause,&uot; Bryson said. &uot;He was an environmentalist too. He was always a supporter.&uot;

&uot;I still get a lump in the center of my chest&uot; thinking about Wellstone’s death, he said.

At the Union Center service, the Rev. Mark Ellis of St. Theodore’s Catholic Church led the ceremony and the Rev. George Marin led a prayer in the service.

A solemn, mournful crowd of about 30 prayed, heard scripture and sang &uot;Amazing Grace&uot; together in remembrance of the senator. After the service, people made comments about what Senator Wellstone meant to them.

&uot;He was an important person to us in Minnesota,&uot; Ellis said. &uot;The hardest part of it is losing someone we loved that was so close to our hearts.&uot;

Henry Kalis, a former state representative in district 26B, remembered Wellstone as passionate.

&uot;He was quite a fiery guy,&uot; Kalis said. &uot;He was more than a politician, he was a genuine real person.&uot;

The silence that followed the service was thick with emotion. It held a sense of loss for the state, for the community, for the union. But overwhelmingly, it was the loss of a beloved person.

Hagen said, before beginning the service, &uot;I don’t know if I can quite handle this one.&uot; His voice cracked with emotion, and he turned away to compose himself. &uot;It’s tough, very tough.&uot;