A Circle of Grief: Wellstone and St Paul

Oct 22

Paul Wellstone died Oct. 25, 2002, with his wife, daughter, and a handful of extraordinary people who were known and loved in his adopted hometown, St. Paul. I wrote this for the Pioneer Press on the day after Paul died, to chronicle the mourning, the disbelief, the numbness 10 years ago, as St Paul became a tight-knit circle of grief.

St. Paul was somber and subdued Saturday, a city with a hole in its heart.

The day before, Paul Wellstone ‘s plane went down. That meant that Sheila Wellstone probably was lost, too. The circle of grief widened. And if Sheila was on the plane, the Wellstones’ daughter, Marcia, was probably on board. The circle widened now to White Bear Lake, where Marcia was a beloved teacher. And Sheila rarely traveled without the company of her close friend, Mary McEvoy, who was a fixture at St. Luke’s, the big Catholic parish on Summit and Lexington. And what about Will McLaughlin?

The ripples turned into waves of sorrow and loss that would wash over St. Paul.

PAUL WELLSTONE: He Never Shut Up but He Always Showed Up

At the Louisiana Cafe on Selby Avenue, Paul and Sheila Wellstone were such regulars that the staff knew their breakfast order by heart: “Farmer’s Breakfast, wheat toast and pancakes,” said manager Neal Bodsgard, adding that the senator usually came in attired in a battered old Northfield High School letter jacket.

It was that familiarity and its dreadful loss that made theses deaths sting so much through the Cathedral Hill and Summit Avenue neighborhoods. From the college haunts near Macalester and St. Thomas to the big house precincts near the Cathedral, Saturday was a day of mourning. Sure, people still raked leaves or went shopping, but Wellstone signs in a thousand front yards were draped in black, and people in cafes or standing in the aisles of grocery stores commiserated in hushed tones. Something was gone.

Nicole Theis-Mahon, 25, was having breakfast at the Louisiana with her mother, Lael Theis, and trying to make sense out of a senseless tragedy. Nicole had met Wellstone on a plane once, back in high school when she was flying to Washington, D.C., to attend a youth leadership conference. She couldn’t believe a senator was flying coach.

“I cried and went to the candlelight vigil last night,” she said. “I’m still upset. For me, Paul Wellstone was an idol; I use him as a standard by which I judge all other politicians.”

But it wasn’t just the Wellstones who were being mourned.

John McCarty, co-owner of the Louisiana Cafe, was a supporter of the Wellstones and it was at his cafe that Wellstone announced he would seek a third term, beginning the ill-fated campaign that ended Friday. But McCarty belongs to St. Luke’s Catholic Church, where Mary McEvoy, 49, sang in the choir, and also is a friend of Will McLaughlin’s mother, Judy. For him and many like him, the loss of a senator was only a part of his grief.

“Will McLaughlin was a world-class kid, absolutely world class,” he said of the 23-year-old. “And our son, Andrew, is good friends with Mary’s son, Luke. This tragedy affects the whole state, it affects the whole nation, but it affects our own little neighborhood so much … it affects our church so much. … My emotions are all over the place. To lose all these people — Paul and Sheila, and Mary McEvoy, and Will — people who were all on the top of the mountain, shouting out about what was important to them … to lose them … it’s … it’s …”

McCarty couldn’t finish the sentence, but he didn’t need to. In St. Paul on Saturday, there were volumes that went unspoken but were deeply felt.

In a time when many politicians hide in high-tech luxury, Paul Wellstone was a familiar face on streets where people still know each other by name. Working out in the gym at the University Club on Ramsey Hill, eating breakfast at the Louisiana or seeing a film at the Grandview, the Wellstones loved St. Paul. And St. Paul loved them back.

“I used to run into them at the Home Video store on Snelling Avenue,” said Darren Tobolt, 30, who was sharing a subdued brunch with his friend, Janet Nelson, at the Louisiana. “They rented really bad movies, I remember that. Mystery-suspense titles.”

Tobolt, an aide to Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, worked as an organizer on Wellstone ‘s 1996 campaign, and was mourning Wellstone ‘s death. But he was even more affected by the death of McEvoy, a university professor who, when she found out that Tobolt hadn’t completed his degree in political science, helped arrange an independent study course for him to get the credits he needed. “If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have finished college” he said. “To me, this was the greatest woman. I counted Mary as a friend. That’s the part that broke my heart.”

St. Paul is a city of concentric circles. The Wellstones and those who died with them made an extraordinary number of connections and touched thousands of lives in this city, in every part of town and in every community. Not since police officers Tim Jones and Ron Ryan Jr. were gunned down in 1994 have I seen this city so affected by tragedy.

I thought for a minute or two that maybe the anti-war march scheduled Saturday to protest a war with Iraq would be muzzled by grief and turn into a silent funeral procession. I was wrong. Paul Wellstone never could be muzzled.

The crowd was twice as large as anyone had expected. It filled John Ireland Boulevard between the Cathedral and the Capitol. And it was like Wellstone himself: Loud, flamboyant, full of life. Beating drums, chanting slogans (“Hey hey, ho ho; we won’t fight for Amoco”) and carrying Wellstone signs in tribute to the only senator running for re-election who voted against authorizing war, this was no funeral procession, not by Minnesota standards. It was more like a funky Louisiana Cafe/New Orleans send-off.

“There is an incredible sense of personal loss for so many of us,” said Rob Eller-Isaacs, co-minister of Unity Unitarian Church on Holly Avenue, just a few blocks from where the Wellstones lived. “When people you love die, you think about how best can you memorialize them. For us, the answer was clear: You keep on keeping on, and you redouble your efforts to build the world that Paul and Sheila were dedicated to building.”

I liked the sign that Marsha Berry of St. Paul and her friend Mary Doerr were marching with: “This one,” said their homemade sign, “is for Paul and Sheila.”