Paul and Sheila Were Our Friends

This piece was originally published by Common Dreams on Oct. 28, 2003.

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As I drove on I-94 to Lakewood Cemetery on Saturday, my heart was filled with so many emotions. Grief and anguish. Anger and despair. Sadness and joy. Hope. It had been one year since the plane crash that took the lives of six incredible people I was lucky to have known, and whom I miss terribly. On this anniversary, I was feeling overwhelmed with sorrow until I saw a banner hung over an overpass that said:

Paul and Sheila,
May your hope give us hope.
May your love give us love.
May your strength give us strength.
May your faith give us faith.

I carried those comforting words of the one and only Bruce Springsteen with me all day. They echo in my ears still now.

The last day that I saw Paul and Sheila Wellstone was September 29th, 2002. It was the Twin Cities Marathon and a perfect autumn day. Paul and Sheila loved to cheer for the runners and many Wellstone staff and supporters, including Will McLaughlin and Mary McEvoy, stood on the curb outside Judy McLaughlin's home on Summit Avenue shouting words of encouragement at the 25th mile.

Their biggest fan was, of course, Paul. He slapped them on the back, ran out into the street to high-five them, and yelled in the way only Paul could, "You're almost there! Only a mile to go! You're on the home stretch! I know you can do it!"

I had heard Paul speak at hundreds of events before - at schools, senior centers, and labor rallies; in the Senate; at the state fair and even in own my living room. But it was on this beautiful fall day in St. Paul that I realized, more than ever, what was so uniquely special about this man and why I still got goosebumps every time I heard him speak: he was our biggest cheerleader. He supported us, encouraged us, and inspired us.

Paul loved being out there and he wished he could have been running the marathon himself. That day there was a camera crew following Paul and Sheila around. On camera, Paul told this story that I didn't see until months after he died: "I went to an event with the deaf community at St. Paul Technical College. A woman came up to me and said, 'I want to teach you how to sign something.' And she showed me how to sign, 'I am not afraid.' He repeated and signed, 'I am not afraid.' - I will never forget that," he said.

Since October 25, 2002, there has been a vacuum for the thousands of us whose lives were touched by Paul and Sheila, Marcia and Mary, Will and Tom. I miss witnessing the joy that was so evident in their lives, their compassion for humanity, and their hope for building a better tomorrow. The loss is immeasurable.

One year later, on October 25th of this year, I was talking with a friend and told him that the hardest part for me during this past year has been missing those people and not witnessing the embodiment of the goodness that I believed at my very core. When the plane went down, we were all shocked, horrified, and full of mourning. We didn't understand how we could lose so much, so quickly. But now we have had a year of not seeing their determined and smiling faces working for peace and justice, feeling their passion when they spoke, hearing their words of encouragement at the 25th mile. My friend, who is a very wise man, said, "Paul was a religion to us." And he was.

We believed in the principles that Paul and Sheila stood for and we acted on those beliefs. We had faith that goodness and justice would prevail even in the eyes of defeat. We found comfort in their integrity, strength in their courage, peace in their compassion and in everything, hope.

Since that fateful day last October, I have had a button of Paul on my winter coat that I wore every day until it was warm enough outside that I didn't need to wear it anymore. Sometimes I forgot that I had it on. I stood at a coffee shop and the girl at the counter said, "Paul Wellstone was my hero." I was pumping gas and an older gentleman smiled kindly and said, "He sure was a fighter." And there were plenty of comments about what folks thought of Paul's opponent in his final campaign and about the manner in which he conducted himself, but as this is a piece honoring our friends, I will not use expletives.

I was at a holiday party two months after the crash, on Christmas Day, and a friend of mine from high school whom I hadn't seen for quite some time came up to me, hugged me, and with tears in his eyes, told me that because of Paul, his grandmother finally received the veterans' benefits that were due to her late husband and that she didn't have to sell her lifelong home. She received the letter from Paul's office the week of the accident.

There are so many stories like these and quite honestly, wearing Paul over my heart turned into a selfish act in some ways. I love hearing how people's lives were touched by the Wellstones, and I want us to continue to remember and to never forget.

On the last day of the campaign kickoff tour last May, we were just finishing up our last event at Daube's Bakery in Rochester. The bakery was packed and overflowing to the parking lot, and Paul's speech was an incredibly energizing end to four days of campaigning all around the state. After the event, I was trying to get Paul to do a short interview with a reporter I had promised time to after the speech. As I was attempting very unsuccessfully to get Paul closer to the door, he stopped at the bakery counter, grabbed my arm and in all seriousness said to me, "Kelly, have you tried the coffeecake here? It's the best! Sheila and I love it!" I admitted to him that I hadn't and Paul insisted that I buy some to take home with me. He raved to the bakery owners and employees about how fabulous their food was. I think this is what I miss most about Paul and Sheila - how genuinely alive they were. They always took the time to say thank you, to pay attention to things large and small, and to do it with a twinkle in their eyes. They were our cheerleaders.

A marathon is 26.2 miles long. That's about 25.2 miles more than I have ever run. We were standing there, cheering, whistling, clapping and all morning, runners who had made it such a great distance would stop to shake Paul's hand or get a hug or take a picture. So many people thanked Paul and Sheila for being there to cheer, to tell them they had a lawn sign in their yard, and to say they couldn't wait to vote for Paul. Those who wore Wellstone t-shirts or stickers received extra enthusiastic cheers from us.

When people stopped, Paul would laugh and say, "Keep going! Get back out there! You're almost done!" And often, softly, "Thank you for saying that. It means a lot." Hundreds of runners came by. One man I will never forget came up to Paul, took his hand, and said, "I just want you to know how proud I am to have you as my Senator."

So was I, Paul. And you were right about the coffeecake.

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