Paul Wellstone and the Chickadee

Russ, Buddy the Wonderdog, and I recently nudged our way north to visit the outdoor memorial to Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. Wellstone, his wife Sheila, one of their daughters, and several aides died in a plane crash in 2002, along with the pilots, near the small town of Eveleth, Minn.

I never saw the senator in person, but I had contact with his staffers in the 1990s, particularly Kim Stokes. This was early in my career when I worked in public affairs for the Forest Service. Part of my job was coordinating responses to inquiries from federal congressmen and representatives who received complaints from their constituents about Forest Service activities in the Superior National Forest.

I would receive the letters, decide which Forest Service person should write a response (sometimes this was me), and then follow up, making sure the Forest Supervisor signed the letter and that it got mailed. I know, snail mail – how quaint!

I always enjoyed my discussions with Kim. She was so enthusiastic about the democratic senator, which wasn’t something I usually heard from staffers for other federal legislators. That piqued my interest, and I watched Wellstone’s career from afar.

Despite early public relations gaffes after his election in 1991, the short, feisty, and energetic senator learned from his mistakes and became an effective leader. He even explored a run for the presidency, but did not seek it due to health issues, which ended up being multiple sclerosis.

One of his well-known quotes is, “We all do better when we all do better.”

20200404_123600Russ and I had driven past the signs for the memorial off Highway 53 in several times, and finally had the time to stop. The first thing to greet us in the parking area was poetry. A snow-covered stone mantle sat at the entrance to the memorial. We brushed off the snow, trying to read the poem that was etched into the rock. We couldn’t do it because of the moisture, but were able to make out some of the words later, after it had time to dry.

After visiting the commemorative circle, which featured monuments made of local stone to those killed in the crash (except the pilots), we walked the surrounding legacy trail. The path was covered by about a foot of snow, and it didn’t look like anyone had been there in at least a week. Sinking through the crunchy thin snow crust every other step, we gingerly made our way, marveling at the quiet and the sun streaming through the skinny pines. Interpretive signs lined the route. After brushing off the snow, we read about Wellstone’s career progression.


An image of Wellstone from his college professor days at Carleton College in MN.

The final sign on the route was dedicated to his wife, Sheila. The feminist in me did not appreciate this. I thought her sign should have occurred earlier on the trail, perhaps after the sign about their marriage, because I’m sure Paul could not have accomplished even half of what he did without her support. Having her sign at the end seemed like an afterthought.

After coming full circle back to the poetic entry, we walked the trail to the crash site narrative. The trail ended in a viewing platform about 2,000 feet from the actual site. Signs on the platform described the lives of the people lost. Descriptions of the two pilots were notably absent, but I suppose this was because the crash was deemed their fault, combined with poor visibility.


Looking down the peaceful legacy trail.

As we stood, looking out into the pines, a flock of chickadees twittered among the branches. One brave energetic bird alighted only two feet from me, calling loudly, as if berating me for intruding. I extended my gloved hand to see if the bird would land, and made a “phish, phish” sound that often works to attract birds.

This feisty little guy was too smart for that. He stayed where he was, continuing his call. Eventually, he flew away to join his friends.

The chickadee reminded me Wellstone. I would like to think his spirit and those of the others in the crash were somehow absorbed into the forest and live on there.

Wellstone leaves a political legacy in the form of the legislation he passed and in Camp Wellstone, a training program for people interested in political action. His wife Sheila’s legacy lives on in her tireless work against domestic violence.

With Buddy leading, we made our way back to our truck, filled with appreciation for these lives well-lived and duly recognized.

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