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What Paul Wellstone taught me

This morning my heart is heavy. I arose to prepare for my early morning workout and in just seconds thoughts of Paul and Sheila Wellstone popped into my head. I decided to work out this morning in my Wellstone T-shirt from the 1996 campaign – it is now about 6 or 8 sizes too big but I don’t care. It makes me feel special…and close to them. Especially important on this day.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic plane crash that killed our beloved late United States Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila Wellstone, their daughter Marcia Wellstone-Markusen, and campaign aids and friends Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic and Will McLaughlin. Their small plane went down on a rainy, icky, gloomy day 10 years ago (at about this time) in a woodsy area in Eveleth, MN just two weeks before the 2002 election.

Most of us who knew and loved Paul, Sheila and the others, remember exactly where we were at that moment and how we heard the shocking and devastating news that changed our world. I was working from Democratic party headquarters as a strategic communications and marketing consultant helping candidates and campaigns with message and marketing. (On leave from the state legislature.) I had just completed an all-nighter and put the final direct marketing pieces to bed. I slept for about 1.5 hours on the hard cement floor of the DFL and awoke before 7 a.m. to check in with printers to make sure everything was on track.

Shortly after that, calls began to the party chair and other leaders, including my boss at the state legislature, Representative Tom Pugh. I remember Tom pulling me aside in private – before it had hit the news – and telling me what he knew. We didn’t know for sure who was on the plane nor if there were any survivors but the news wasn’t good.

I, of course, was in shock. But immediately went to task trying to make sure that my friends that were working the 2002 campaign were NOT on that plane. I worried about Jeff Blodgett, Dan Cramer and others that I was close to. For hours it was just a race to get confirmation about what happened and who was on the plane. I will never, ever forget the sick, sad, dark feeling of those early moments and how gloomy that day was. I hung out with my friend Jimbo all day. Paul was his teacher at Carleton College, his mentor and friend, as we worked on the 1996 campaign together.

Jimbo and I wandered aimlessly throughout the day in shock and disbelief. We headed to the campaign office and then home to sit, to remember, to try to comprehend what had just happened. Then, we attended to all of the services and memorials and tried to take some solace in connecting with our friends.

I will never forget how lost and disorienting that day was. It has been 10 years but somehow today, albeit somewhat unexpectedly for me, it came rushing back like it was yesterday. So today, I sent up a prayer for Paul, Sheila and the others and I cried…before my work out and after.

Understanding Paul’s impact

For those of us who worked for him, and so many across this country, Paul Wellstone was a beacon of hope and inspiration like none other. He was genuine, authentic, passionate beyond measure, and stood up for what he believed was right, bar nothing.  (My kind of guy/person!) Paul didn’t stop when things got hard, in fact he got even more fired up. And when you were with him, he was engaged in you and made you feel like you were the most important person on earth. He did that with everyone he met. He was a tireless champion of the underdog, the little guy, justice in our state, our country and our world. He was…one of a kind. And we all knew and said this about him before he was gone from our lives. It’s what kept us inspired, dedicated and working night and day to champion the causes we cared about and to work tirelessly on his campaigns.

There is no question that Paul transformed lives. He made a difference. And not just for those of us who were lucky enough to know him personally, or for those of us that had the honor and privilege to work with him and call him our friend. He did this for almost everyone he met and every cause he championed.

Those of us that now are part of the Wellstone family know that we will never have another experience like those years in the trenches fighting for Paul and fighting together for what we believed. I was fortunate to spend nearly 18 months volunteering and working on the 96 campaign – the better part of 1995 and 1996. I even did a short stint on his presidential campaign years later. 🙂 Those experiences and the people who shared them will always hold an incredibly special place in my heart. It has changed me, shaped me, inspired and guided me. Paul did that.

Like so many, I can’t believe it has been 10 years. I have spent a lot of time this past month, and especially this past week, thinking about Paul and Sheila and the others on the plane that fateful day. Thinking of all of my friends and former colleagues who have heavy hearts along with me in a way that really can’t be described. And, reading tributes that former staffers and politicians alike have written to Paul, Sheila and the others.

Have I done right by him?

Most importantly, I have spent personal time reflecting on how I have held up in the last 10 years at living my life in a way that my friend and mentor Paul Wellstone would appreciate. Have I managed to do enough, be enough, and help enough to make Paul proud? What would Paul say to me today if we were walking and talking (he never stood still) or racing from campaign stop to campaign stop? I have been out of direct advocacy, politics and policy work for five years running my own marketing firm. What would he think of that? Would he wonder why I left?

The answer, I have decided, is that Paul would be proud. He would, in fact, be smiling and cheering me on for having transformed my body and my life and to now be paying it forward to help others do the same. While health and wellness was not directly his passion (though mental health absolutely was), more than anything, he was an advocate for following your dreams, making the American dream accessible to all, and following your heart and your gut. Doing what’s right. Just making a difference.

I like to think that he would be proud that I chose a path to create a small business that is providing jobs and helping clients and causes that I care about and that are changing our world. He would be proud that I did something really tough – losing 200 pounds and that I didn’t stop there but rather decided to pay it forward and help others with the same struggles.

Today, 10 years after we lost them, Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s legacy has never mattered more. The current state of our country and our world, and the current election, are all cases in point. While I am not directly involved on a daily basis in advocacy, organizing, politics or policy like so many of my friends and former colleagues, I am individually committed to those same core values and living my life in a way that never separates the life I lead from the words I speak. And I am proud of that.

My favorite Wellstone quotes come to mind today as I reflect. Many of these are on my wall near my home office – including a small Wellstone green button that says “Hope.”

When I take stock and measure my life’s work and personal commitment to making a difference against these core Wellstone values, which happen to also be core Lori values, I know that I am right. Paul would be proud. And he would tell me so with that beaming contagious smile and some crazy hand gestures. And then he would tell me to carry on as there is so much more to do.

Thank you Paul. And Sheila, Marcia, Mary, Tom and Will. I miss you.


Paul Wellstone quotes that inspire and spur me on to make a difference:

 “Never separate the life you lead from the words you speak.”

“We all do better when we all do better.”

“The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

“I dare to imagine a country where every child I hold in my hands, are all God’s children, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of whether they’re boy or girl, regardless of religion, regardless of rich or poor, that every child I hold in my hands, will have the same chance to reach her full potential or his full potential. That is the goodness of our country. That is the essence of the American dream.”

“Politics is not just about power and money games, politics can be about the improvement of peoples lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about more peace and more justice.”

“I don’t think politics has anything to do with left, right, or center. It has to do with trying to do right by people.”

“Politics is not about big money or power games, it’s about the improvement of people’s lives.”

“Stand Up. Keep fighting.”

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Theressa #

    Good and thoughtfully moving post, Lori. Eyes got a little misty…

    October 25, 2012
  2. Mark #

    In 1982 I was a radio reporter in Grand Forks, ND and one day Paul Wellstone came to my station during his first ever political campaign. Of course I didn’t have a clue who this little guy (I’m 6-2, he was what, 5-5?) was. But I will never forget thinking after our interview was over that I had just met an extraordinary man. I was blown away by his amazing energy and charisma!! Blown away! I knew instantly that this guy would be someone famous. Ironically he ended up losing that first election for state office. But thank goodness he went on to become a US senator.
    In fact in all the interviews of people famous and not I did over the years I NEVER met anyone who radiated the kind of energy Wellstone did. He was simply a force of nature!

    February 22, 2013
    • Hi Mark,

      Indeed he was a force of nature. Thank you for sharing your connection to Paul and for reading my blog. He is one person I always carry with me.

      February 23, 2013

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