Wellstone faithful mourn his passing

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 26, 2002

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) &045; In a cramped parking lot at Sen. Paul Wellstone’s headquarters, hundreds of his supporters, volunteers and friends stood in a cold drizzle and cried.

In a scene reminiscent of tragedies ranging from the death of Princess Diana to the collapse of the World Trade Center, mourners flocked to Wellstone’s headquarters with flowers, candles and flags in the hours after hearing that he, his wife Sheila and six others died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota.

&uot;It doesn’t seem real,&uot; said Tom Collins of St. Paul, who, with his wife Joanne, had done volunteer work for the campaign. &uot;It’s a nightmare.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

People left cards and wrote farewells on poster boards they taped to the walls of the building, along a busy street that connects the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. One poster said, &uot;You will not be forgotten, nor will the things you believed in.&uot;

At mid-afternoon, about four hours after the crash, two ministers and several political leaders led the crowd in prayers, stories and songs. &uot;He fought all of those years, right up to this morning,&uot; Vice President Walter Mondale said.

&uot;All Minnesotans have lost two of our most compassionate, caring public servants ever,&uot; said Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Republican who recalled working with both Wellstone and his wife to help people with addictions and victims of abuse.

Michael Brodie, a retired psychologist from West St. Paul, walked through the crowd with two bouquets of daisies and carnations and placed them in the fence surrounding the parking lot. He said Sheila Wellstone worked with his wife to create a shelter for abused women in Minneapolis.

&uot;The two of them were a wonderful breath of fresh air in politics,&uot; Brodie said. &uot;He was one of the few politicians willing to stand up for a cause that was controversial. It feels like a terrible loss to have that voice silenced.&uot;

As the crowd grew, a worker at the post office across the street lowered its flag to half-staff. The flag at another office building a block away also flew at half-staff.

After she added a bouquet of flowers to the fence, Sarah Fryberger of Minneapolis recalled voting for Wellstone by absentee ballot from Vermont, where she was a college student, when he was first elected in 1990. She met him during the 1996 campaign.

&uot;He made people feel really special,&uot; Fryberger said. &uot;He had a really warm handshake and smile and was just this goofy, little guy that you immediately fell in love with. And his compassion and his sincerity for helping people came through.&uot;

Longtime friends also gathered, hugged each other and remembered the Wellstones. Fran Gretz, a former neighbor of the family when they lived in Northfield, said they were active in school activities and always asked about her children and other neighbors in the years after he was elected to the Senate.

Mark Sherman of St. Paul, who as a college student learned about community organizing from Wellstone 30 years ago, said, &uot;I’ve had a lot of losses in my life but this feels much worse in that it’s a loss to our friends and our community. He had so many talents. He wasn’t perfect but we’ve got a big hole now.&uot;

For Pazao Vang, a young political activist working to gather support for an education referendum in St. Paul, Wellstone was a role model both because he was an underdog when he was elected in 1990 and because he supported her ethnic community, the Hmong. &uot;He has helped many of our Hmong citizens get their naturalizations in a very easy way,&uot; she said.

She came to the vigil with her cousins Shao Vang and Youa Vang, who were volunteering for Wellstone and working in another campaign office in St. Paul when they heard about the crash.

&uot;Though we have never met him, we have so much energy just looking at his name,&uot; Youa Vang said through tears. &uot;We are grieving so much.&uot;