More than 20,000 people came to the University of Minnesota Tuesday night to honor the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. The event began as a farewell to the DFL senator, his wife and daughter and three campaign workers, who were killed in a plane crash last Friday along with two pilots. The memorial service turned into a political rally, as Wellstone's two sons, his campaign treasurer and closest Senate colleague urged the crowd to continue Wellstone's legacy at the voting booth.
Williams Arena was filled to capacity more than an hour before the memorial service began, an overflow area was packed, and thousands of people watched the service on a screen outside the arena. The gospel group The Sounds of Blackness fired up the crowd.
"Say Wellstone! Say Wellstone!" they chanted.
It took more than a half hour to seat family members and dignitaries, who included dozens of Wellstone's congressional colleagues, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.
But even the processional had a partisan feel. The crowd booed Republican Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, but went wild over former Vice President Walter Mondale, the likely Democrat to replace Wellstone on the ballot.
A tribute film included photos of the Wellstones and their campaign aides, over the sounds of Bob Dylan singing and Wellstone delivering stump speeches.
"A week from today, Paul Wellstone's name will not be on the ballot. But there will be a choice just the same ... either keep his legacy alive, or bring it forever to an end!"
- Rick Kahn, longtime Wellstone aide
"This is the state I love, this is the state I represent, and I intend to win this Senate race!" Wellstone said on the film.
There were tributes to each of the six people who died. The youngest, 23-year-old Will McLaughlin, was a University of Minnesota student who worked as a personal assistant and driver for Wellstone. His brother David said whenever Will was driving Wellstone and they saw a car with a Wellstone bumper sticker, Wellstone would tell Will to pull up next to them so he could wave.
"So they'd pull up next to the car and Paul would wave and wave and wave. And then he'd sit back in his seat and say, 'Huh, they didn't wave back.' And this went on for a couple of days as Will laughed to himself, before he finally let the Senator know, 'The windows are tinted and they can't see you,'" recalled David McLaughlin.
Wellstone's longtime aide, Tom Lapic, had taken a leave of absence from Wellstone's Senate office to work on the campaign. His friend Brian Ahlberg said Wellstone wanted Lapik by his side for the final stretch of his campaign for a third term.
"He did what Tom does best - counsel Paul. He helped Paul to say best what Paul wanted to say," said Ahlberg.
The third campaign staffer who died was Mary McEvoy, a close friend of Wellstone's wife Sheila and a professor in early childhood special education at the University of Minnesota. Interim President Robert Bruininks says the U has lost one of its brightest lights.
"Mary genuinely cared about the fate of all of God's children, and she spent her time trying to improve their lives," said Bruininks. "She believed passionately that a nation that failed to invest in its children was failing to invest in its future."
The Wellstones' daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, was a Spanish teacher who took a leave of absence from her job at White Bear Lake High School to help with her dad's campaign. Assistance Superintendent Larry DeNucci said Marcia was a good teacher who encouraged hundreds of students to succeed in life. He said she had boundless energy.
"As you know, she was a marathon runner. I started races with her. She was a three-hour marathon - I never finished with her," DeNucci recalled.
The first overtly political comments came during the tribute to Sheila Wellstone. The senator's state director Connie Lewis said Sheila was determined to win the election so that the couple could continue their work.
Lewis said Sheila would often leave notes for her husband, who was described by Lewis as sometimes absent-minded. Lewis said she picked up the senator at his home recently, and he showed her a note Sheila had left him with instructions for the day.
"Smiling, Paul pointed to the bottom of the note. And the words written in bold across the bottom of the page were, 'We will win," she said.
Lewis described Sheila Wellstone as a librarian who became a champion for victims of domestic violence on Capitol Hill.
"Sheila believed that everyone had the right to grow up in a safe home," said Lewis.
The Wellstones' oldest son David said his mom held the family together.
"My mom was everything to us. My dad wasn't who he was without my mom," said David Wellstone.
The couple had been married for 39 years, and were, by all accounts, inseparable.
As the tributes to the late senator began, the service soon had all the marks of a campaign rally. Wellstone's former student and campaign treasurer Rick Kahn rose to talk about his close friend, urging Wellstone supporters to go to the polls next Tuesday to "win the election." Speaking in Wellstone's fiery repetitive style, Kahn said the senator's legacy is at stake.
"We will keep his legacy alive, we must keep his legacy alive, we are going to win this election for Paul Wellstone, we are going to win this election for Paul Wellstone, we are going to win this election for Paul Wellstone!" Kahn said.
Kahn singled out a handful of Republican senators by name, and made a direct plea to Minnesota Congressman Jim Ramstad, asking the Republicans to help Democrats win the election.
Wellstone's youngest son Mark picked up the theme. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father, Mark Wellstone pumped his fist in the air and brought the crowd to its feet.
"We will carry on the struggle, and we will carry on the legacy, and we will do it for Paul. And I'll tell you what, mom, mom, you're right - we will win! We will win! We will win!" said Mark Wellstone.
The service ended with Wellstone's closest friend in the Senate, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin. Harkin said he first met Wellstone at a farm rally outside of Austin, Minnesota, back when Wellstone was a college professor and community organizer.
"Right before I was to speak, they brought up this little guy. I'd never met him before. Had kind of long curly hair, he had a t-shirt on. And then he started speaking," Harkin recalled. "I kind of feel like that now, after all these wonderful speakers. Because after that was over, I said to my staff, don't you ever put me on the podium after that guy again!"
Harkin called Wellstone the "soul of the Senate," someone who cared about farmers, veterans and people with mental illness. Before long Harkin, too, had the crowd riled. Removing his jacket as his frenzy grew, he urged people to board Wellstone's trademark green bus and fight for the liberal principles Wellstone lived by.
"For Paul Wellstone, will you stand up and keep fighting for social and economic justice? Say yes! For Paul, will you stand up and keep fighting for better wages for those who mop our floors and clean our bathrooms, for those who take care of our elderly, take care of our sick, teach our kids and help our homeless, say yes!"
The crowd answered "Yes!"
As thousands of people prepared to leave the arena, they focused on the man they hope to take Wellstone's place in the Senate, by chanting "Fritz! Fritz!", for former Vice President Walter "Fritz" Mondale.
Mondale is expected to get his party's backing Wendesday night, and will then have five days to campaign. Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman, who attended the Wellstone memorial service, began a statewide fly-around Wednesday morning as he begins campaigning again. Republicans have scheduled a get-out-the-vote rally Wednesday night in St. Paul.More from MPR