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Snow, sorrow blanket Wellstone memorial

Heath Burthwick of Bovey carries a sign featuring the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and the flag during a memorial Thursday near Eveleth, Minn. Wellstone was remembered for his caring for people on the 10th anniversary of the plane crash that killed him and seven others near Eveleth. Bob King | Forum Communications

By John Myers, Forum Communications Co.

FAYAL TOWNSHIP — Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa stood in the snow for a moment Thursday afternoon away from the rest of the crowd, his face somber, his umbrella dripping.

“Paul Wellstone was the closest male friend I ever had,” Harkin quietly told a reporter. “I haven’t had enough courage to come here until now... I felt I had to come to reconnect with Paul. I felt I had to come to remind me again why the hell I’m in the United States Senate.”

Harkin was one of more than 200 people who braved the Iron Range’s first accumulating snowstorm of the season to attend what was billed as the 10th anniversary “memorial celebration” of the lives lost in a plane crash there that killed eight people, including Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone.

In addition to Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia Markuson, others killed in the crash included campaign staffers Mary McEvoy, Will McLaughlin and Tom Lapic as well as pilot Richard Conry and co-pilot Michael Guess. There were no survivors.

Thursday’s event was held at the Wellstone Memorial and Historic Site, an understated, solemn series of rock monuments and walkways that wind through pines and balsams just a few hundred yards from where the plane went down.

Yet, despite the sad recollection of the anniversary, Thursday’s event mostly was an upbeat accounting of the Wellstone legacy, with stories galore of the diminutive firebrand liberal who adopted the Iron Range as his “second home” and who swept into the U.S. Senate and into so many Minnesotans’ hearts.

“It’s important and healing to be here. … Their deaths were a tremendous loss. My heart still is full of sorrow. I miss them,” Lisa Radosevich-Craig, who headed Wellstone’s Senate office in Virginia, said. It’s impossible to make sense of the crash and deaths, she said, “so let’s instead focus on their lives.”

Speakers talked about Wellstone’s ability to make friends with almost everyone he met, and his and Sheila’s unyielding efforts to promote mental health, fight domestic violence and battle for economic and social justice, veterans’ benefits and education.

Gabe Brisboy, a former Hibbing teacher and longtime Iron Range activist and Wellstone friend, quoted from a 2002 memorial service when he said: “There should be a word to describe standing up for social justice … and that word should be ‘Wellstone.’ ”

A steady snow fell throughout the 90-minute-long event as the scent of smoking sage and white cedar wafted through the air, part of a strong American Indian flavor to the event that included Lakota and Ojibwe songs.

Jerry Fallos, former union president at the now-shuttered LTV Steel taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes, recalled when Wellstone wrote out a personal check for Fallos to buy Christmas presents for the children of workers who lost their jobs when the plant closed. Fallos said Wellstone made him promise never to tell anyone.

The speeches mostly avoided the hot politics of late October, even with 10 days before a presidential election. But no event involving Wellstone could be completely apolitical.

George Sundstrom, longtime Duluth labor leader, raised laughs when he talked about giving then-Sen. Wellstone rides to events in Duluth and on the Iron Range.

“I used to dread coming up to a stoplight because if he saw two or three people, he’d jump out and go shake their hands,” Sundstrom said. “Then the light would turn and the cars behind would start honking. … So he’d wave to them. I think they were waving back.”

But Sundstrom wasn’t going to let the day go by without a plug for DFLers now running for office.

“If Paul were here today, he would see a different view of the country than what (Republican U.S. Rep.) Chip Cravaack or Mitt Romney see,” Sundstrom said, urging those in attendance, and anyone who believed in Wellstone’s ideals, to support Barack Obama and Cravaack-challenger Rick Nolan.

Janis Allen, of Hoyt Lakes, and Diane Tyler, of Chisholm, got to Thursday’s event about 30 minutes early so they could place flowers at the rock monument honoring Wellstone. Neither woman had met the senator, but both now work for Range Mental Health Services in an emergency mental-health crisis center named after Wellstone.

“We wanted to come to honor him,” Allen said. “We believe in what he stood for. What he did is still making a difference every day.”

Laurie Swenson
Laurie Swenson is a reporter/copy editor for the Bemidji Pioneer. She has been with the Pioneer since 2004.