As I walked behind the couple, I could see how short he was; he was also balding and walking with a funny gait: a little hunched over and limping. He certainly didn't match up to what is considered to be the American ideal for sex appeal in men.
Nevertheless, I could also see how clearly this man and woman cared about each other - here they were, holding hands like two young lovers, though from my vantage point they looked to be in their 50s.
Then partway down the block came a loud voice - clearly agitated, clearly nonsensical. A large man was swearing at the top of his lungs. It was Massachusetts Avenue on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; there, one gets used to seeing oddballs. But this guy was a lot odder than usual. His words, vulgar and vehement, ran in shouting streams of incoherency, while he swung around his arms. All I could think of was, he's dangerous - steer clear. But there was nowhere to go: cars were parked on one side, and a brick wall stood on the other.
The small man in front of me didn't miss a beat. He immediately switched sides with the woman, putting himself between her and the hulk approaching. He looked at her and said, "It's OK," and then looked around. His eyes found mine and he nodded. In that gesture I saw a gentle, "Don't worry, I'll take care of you too."
And I immediately knew he meant it. He stood between us and the crazy guy, holding out his arms as a barrier of protection. It was so spontaneous, so gallant, so special. The angry guy stared at the short but shining knight, his eyes blazing. A moment passed with no talk, no movement, then the man walked on; he went back to his swearing, but now it came as a mutter.
It was then I recognized the balding protector. It was Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. We smiled at each other, and he took up his wife's hand and they continued on their way.
After that, I got to see him and his wife around Capitol Hill a lot. They were always holding hands. Once the three of us stood on the street corner, and he was hunched over more than usual. I asked, "Are you OK, Senator Wellstone?" He answered, "Oh, it's just my back like always. But I'll do better if you call me Paul."
Thereafter, it was always, "Hi, Paul." And he always remembered my name.
I remember another time that we met up, when I was working at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I was supposed to write about a program that sponsored college students who were severely disabled and majoring in science, to bring them to D.C. for internships at NASA. The heads of the program had contacted a bunch of members of Congress to get them to meet with the students, who included a blind man, another bent up in a wheelchair, and another whose cerebral palsy made it nearly impossible to understand him unless you were clearly familiar with the speech patterns of those with such CP. But they were all brilliant.
Only one person from Congress responded: Paul Wellstone. He met with all of them and me in his office, and then arranged for a private tour of the Capitol that included spots where the public doesn't normally get to go. And I remember him engaging in conversation the young man with the severe cerebral palsy. Paul clearly understood him. He made that kid's month.
Paul died a year ago this past Saturday in a plane crash that also killed his wife, Sheila, their daughter, three of Paul's staff, and the two pilots. Then, I was too torn up to write anything. Today, I still feel a great loss.
I find comfort in only one thing. I have to believe that when he died, he was holding his wife's hand.
Sherri Byrand is a Sunday editorial page columnist for the Sheboygan Press, where this column originally appeared.
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