Mourning the loss of Wellstone
By Holly Henson
In the summer I live in Danville and act as Artistic Director of Pioneer Playhouse. In the winter I live in the Twin Cities and do standup comedy. Yesterday I was downtown St. Paul when I heard the news about Senator Paul Wellstone. I am deeply grieved because he represented hope for those of us who feel like our government has been corrupted by corporate money. As soon as I heard the news I went to his campaign headquarters in downtown St. Paul. I wrote down my experience there [to share with Ace readers]. I am very sad that the world has lost such a clear voice of independence and peace.
October 25, 2002 /St. Paul, MN
I was having lunch in downtown St. Paul when my companion’s cell phone rang. He spoke softly into it, then turned to me and broke the news.
‘Without a doubt this is the sickest joke you have ever played’ I said, grabbing his arm, suspended in disbelief. But the verification came swiftly. I pushed away my plate as we contemplated the unthinkable.
As I got into my car, I turned on the radio and heard that people were gathering at Wellstone Campaign Headquarters in St. Paul to mourn. They didn’t give the street address but I figured I could find it. Surprisingly, even though I stopped numerous people on the street and pulled into several gas stations (and was only miles away!), no one knew where one of the nation’s hottest political races was headquartered.
Turns out it wasn’t hard to find, the flashing police cars and TV vans parked outside helped. A small crowd of about 100 was gathered in the parking lot, the news so fresh that most had come empty handed. Only a handful of bouquets and a few candles could be seen.
I stood forlornly next to the famous Green Bus that he campaigned with, the only splashes of color the green Wellstone! buttons and banners.
Technology kept intruding on emotion: cell phones were ringing and TV cameras were on the prowl. We were all hushed, all of us eavesdropping on our neighbors’ grief. I had only shaken Paul Wellstone’s hand once, but he personified the light and hope of those of us who feel voiceless in today’s corporate political climate.
I turned to a woman standing next to me and expressed sorrow that I hadn’t taken time to go and pick up a Wellstone! sign or bumper sticker when I had the chance. “They’re out of the buttons now,” she told me, “you’ll never get one.”
Another woman, eavesdropping, turned to me and said, “Here, have mine.” She unpinned her own button and handed it to me. I hugged her and suddenly both our bodies shook with tears-and she moved on.
As I was pinning the button on, tears streaming down my face, my grief turned to self awareness as I realized a camera was zeroing in, in my direction. And to my shame, a part of me was pleased to be seen.
Then the Wellstone workers motioned for us to gather closer together for an impromptu eulogy. Some people had dreadlocks, others were in suits. There were many different color skins, there were prayers in English and non-English, politicians were crying. The speakers all spoke without introductions, it was a mixture of rabbis, priests, Muslims and former Senators Roger Moe and Walter Mondale. Their words opened fresh tears that mingled with the gray rain. We sang songs and held hands and vowed not to give up the fight and the spirit of independence that Wellstone stood for.
It felt good to be holding strangers’ hands and swaying slightly, like prairie grass in the breeze. Who knows where the seeds of this feeling of unity might blow?
After the service, not knowing what else to do, I went inside the Wellstone Green Bus where two senior citizens were sitting and one journalist was in back, scribbling furiously into his notepad.
The furnishings were mismatched and comfortable, in drab tones that would suit spilled coffee very well. On the wall were lots of photos and souvenirs from many stops along the campaign trail. I stared at a photo of Paul and Shelia hugging and laughing.
“I took that one” one of the seniors said. “Do you work for the campaign?” I asked.
His friend laughed and said, “He’s the bus driver. And the only one who could ever tell Paul Wellstone what to do…and he’d do it.” Both men chuckled.
“Paul would sit right there,” the driver said,” and he loved to tease Shelia. One time he had me start driving off without her and he opened that window and yelled out to her, ‘I guess you’re not joining us today.” He smiled wryly, fondly. “She always came with him, he just loved to tease her.”
I noticed that the journalist in back was eavesdropping and seemed to be writing down the bus driver’s memories.
As I turned to leave I noticed a box with some battered Wellstone! bumper stickers poking out. “Can I have one?,” I asked. The bus driver said “Sure.” His friend reached for one for himself and chimed in: ‘but don’t put it in your window, these are going to be collector’s items’.
As I left I pondered what Senator Paul Wellstone’s death would mean. Hopefully more than a few dollars at a flea market.
I was glad that I had come and was present at a scene of grief that would be piped all over the world, via telecommunications, so that everyone could ponder what this means.
He had my vote, and the respect and love of millions. He was my champion and my voice. I suppose now it’s up to each of us to be the change that we seek. I hope I’m up for it.
As I left, it seemed like the sky was crying too.