Thursday, October 25 marked the five-year anniversary of the deaths of Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila Wellstone, who passed away in an airplane crash. The date carried particular resonance throughout the Carleton community, since Paul Wellstone worked as a professor at Carleton for eleven years, and the couple played a significant political role in Northfield. While memorials were held across the country for the Wellstones, members of Carleton and Northfield communities participated “Wellstone Week,” a series of events sponsored by the Carleton Democrats that honored the Wellstones and encouraged political activism.
“Paul Wellstone was a big part of Carleton,” Carmen Ross ‘10, one of the coordinators of the week, said. “But many students don’t know who he was, since we have many students from all around the country. We wanted to plan events that would raise awareness and educate people about Wellstone.” Planning for “Wellstone Week” began last June, as the Carleton Democrats sought to contact a variety of speakers for the events. Jill Rodde ’09, a primary organizer, said that students responded to the name Wellstone and genuinely wanted to help plan the honorary week.
The activities began Monday night, with a Town Hall Forum where Democratic U.S. senate candidates Mike Ciresi, Jim Cohen, and Jack Nelson Pallmeyer fielded questions from the audience. On Tuesday evening, Carleton students had the opportunity to participate in Wellstone Action, an organization founded by Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s two sons, David and Mark Wellstone. The program provides free training in the progressive grassroots organizing that made Paul Wellstone infamous. The training focused on three main areas; leadership, motivating and mobilizing people for action, and strategic planning for issues and elections.
On Wednesday night, Lu Lippold ’76 showed her documentary titled, “Wellstone!,” which featured the grassroots movements and political activism that the Wellstones promoted. One student, who described feeling extreme pessimism in light of the current political climate, said of the documentary, “As I was watching it, it helped me regain my sense of hope.”
The events of “Wellstone Week” concluded on Thursday evening with a Remembrance Ceremony for the couple in Skinner Memorial Chapel. Many community members spoke to the Wellstones’ memory, and the Carleton Knights performed. The service coincided with the fifth anniversary of the Wellstones’ deaths. At the ceremony, Professor of Political Science Roy Grow, a friend and colleague of Paul Wellstone, said, “The day he was killed, all of us of a certain age remember exactly where we were five years ago.” As a spokesperson for Carleton in the aftershock of the tragedy, Grow recalled participating in a press conference and seeing a news cameraman crying as he worked. “This was a guy who had seen it all—to him, Paul’s death was at his core, and he knew that afternoon what he had lost.”
Paul Wellstone attended University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill where he earned both a BA and a PhD in political science. He married Sheila Ison in 1963, and the couple moved to Northfield, where Paul Wellstone began his career at Carleton. Wellstone worked as a professor of Political Science from 1969-1990. He also launched his political involvement as an outspoken grassroots community organizer in Rice County. Sheila Wellstone worked as a homemaker and library assistant at Northfield High School, and she was an influential adviser to her husband. “The Wellstones shake the lives of so many of us who knew them,” College Chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum, who was a student while Paul Wellstone taught at Carleton, said. “They were two close friends, colleagues, mentors, and teachers.”
Paul Wellstone went on run for office, and was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990. He was the only Senate contender to unseat an incumbent that year. Grow recalls the day of Wellstone’s victory, when members of the Carleton Community gathered in front of Willis Hall and marched to Bridge Square in Northfield. “With that election, Paul gave us something we didn’t know we lost. He gave us our voice,” Grow said. “He taught us to make this country ours.”
Political Science Professor Norm Vig, a friend and collegue of Paul Wellstone for more than twenty years, described three aspects that best defined the senator. “What stands out the most is that he loved people and cared deeply about them. He connected with them like no politician I’ve ever seen. Politics was a way to improve ordinary people’s lives,” Vig said.
Vig also claimed that Paul Wellstone firmly stood by his beliefs. “He knew how to vote on the Iraq War, regardless of how it would affect his next election,” he said [Wellstone voted against the war]. Vig added that Paul Wellstone was a man of genuine courage, with the gumption to stand up to many politicians, including George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. “I think Paul would have been the most powerful critic of the events in the last five years, and we do miss his voice,” Vig said.
As an influential advisor to Paul Wellstone, Sheila Wellstone was instrumental to her husband’s senate campaigns, and her political participation grew as well. Nancy Casper, a close friend of the Wellstones, said, “Sheila never felt comfortable at Carleton and never attended events here. She thought Carleton was a bit snobbish, and that she just didn’t fit in. Little did anyone know that she would become one of the most eloquent spokeswomen in Washington.”
Sheila Wellstone became particularly involved in political work against domestic violence, speaking at conferences and workshops across the country. “Sheila was outraged and determined to educate herself about this issue,” Casper said. “She read, listened to brutal and personal stories.” In 1993 Sheila helped pass a legislation that provided funding for neutral spaces where separated parents could meet to exchange their children without fear of violence. She also focused on international issues of violence against women, such as the sex trade.
As influential politicians in the Carleton, Northfield, and national realms, the Wellstones have left a legacy that many commemorated in the last week. Pablo Kenney ’09 described the impact that Carleton’s “Wellstone Week” had on him: “Paul Wellstone is quite possibly one the most influential person in my life. Because of this week. Unfortunately, I wasn’t fortunate enough to be growing up in Minnesota when Wellstone was a senator. But what I have learned is that politics isn’t a game. Politics isn’t a strategy. Politics is people’s lives—and Wellstone understands that. Now I’m starting to understand that. Paul is one of my greatest teachers.
Perhaps Paul Wellstone’s own words best describe the ideals of hope, courage, and determination that participants in “Wellstone Week” feel he left behind, and most importantly, the necessity to actively fight for political change. “Our aims in political activism are not, and should not be, to create a perfect utopia. What we seek is more simply to improve the quality of human life while at the same time respecting the natural environment which sustains it: ‘Not a heaven on earth but a better earth on earth.’ This is not at all a timid agenda, far from it. The work ahead of us is enormous!”