Residents remember Wellstone

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 26, 2002

Minnesota Rep. Rob Leighton (DFL-Austin) remembers the first time he saw Sen. Paul Wellstone speak.

Wellstone, still a professor at Carleton College, spoke at a rally in 1984 before Leighton's father, Robert, did.

His father asked Leighton, "Did you see that little professor in front of me?"

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Leighton said he had never seen anyone speak like that before.

"(My dad) said, 'His name's Paul Wellstone. You gotta meet him,'" Leighton said.

Leighton met Wellstone the next weekend and the families have been friends since.

"I was just captivated by him," Leighton said.

Wellstone, his wife Sheila and his daughter, Marcia, died Friday in an airplane crash near Eveleth along with three staff members and two pilots.

Those who knew him locally said he was a great leader and well-liked.

"He was the most passionate person I've ever met in politics," Leighton said. "He was so personable and even conservatives, if they actually got to know him, liked him."

Len Miller, 4th District Mower County commissioner, met him while working on his campaign.

"I think he's just a great role model for anybody in this country," Miller said.

Miller has been involved in mental health issues in the state and admired Wellstone for his support of that cause. Miller was at his announcement of the passage of a mental health bill about five years ago.

"It was a pleasure to work with him on that issue," Miller said.

Pat Higgins, Mower County DFL party chairwoman, said Wellstone was supportive of Mower County issues, such as labor and farmers.

"That was an asset to the residents of Mower County," Higgins said.

Mower County has always had strong DFL support, Higgins said, and any time Wellstone visited the area, many people showed up.

"He had a lot of energy. He could get people all excited and gung-ho," she said.

Miller said Wellstone's family members also were involved in politics.

"The whole family has been very politically active for all the right reasons," Miller said.

Leighton said it was no surprise Wellstone's wife was with him Friday. He said Sheila Wellstone was involved in the issues he was concerned with and helped him with policies.

The Wellstone family, Paul, Sheila, their two sons and Marcia were close, Leighton said.

"My sympathy goes out to his family," he said.

Wellstone and Leighton's father were good friends until Robert's death in 1995. Every time Wellstone saw Leighton, he asked about Robert.

"(Wellstone) really liked him," Leighton said.

After Robert's death, Wellstone wrote a letter to the editor about him, which was published in the Austin Daily Herald.

"That's just the sort of guy he was," Leighton said.

Leighton said he last talked to Wellstone a couple weeks ago. Wellstone was excited about the upcoming election, Leighton said.

"He was just so upbeat," Leighton said. "There was no question in his mind he would be successful this fall. He was excited about the campaign and excited for the future."

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at