“Tom, I miss you every day. Love, Your sister.”
— White note in plastic bag on campaign staff member Tom Lapic’s stone monument at the Wellstone Memorial and Historic Site
EVELETH — Amid the sweeping views of open pit mines and looming wind turbines in Minnesota’s North Country lies a 6-acre site featuring nearly a dozen placards and monuments to one of our state’s most devastating tragedies.
It was here in this densely wooded area on Oct. 25, 2002 — just two miles from a safe landing at the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport — that a fiery plane crash took the lives of eight people, including Minnesota’s U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
Dying with him that day were wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia Markuson, campaign staffers Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin, and pilots Richard Conry and Michael Guess.
Beyond the scope of the individual family tragedies, the shocking news of Wellstone’s death — occurring just 11 days before Election Day — threw the state into political turmoil. DFL political figures scrambled to address the ballot situation while also balancing their personal and public grieving.
When asked, former Vice President Walter Mondale agreed to take Wellstone’s place on the ballot. Mondale’s whirlwind campaign effort was hurt, though, by the political fallout from an emotional memorial service that drew widespread criticism from Republicans as too partisan.
In the end, Mondale lost a close race to Republican Norm Coleman.
Ironically, in the midst of a hotly contested Senate race, it was not a campaign trip that prompted Wellstone’s fateful Iron Range visit. In fact, the people-oriented Wellstone had skipped a Minneapolis rally to attend the funeral of the father of longtime Iron Range legislator Tom Rukavina.
Recently on a trip to Lake Vermilion, I stopped to visit this serene memorial approximately three miles east of Highway 53 near here.
On a sunny day over Labor Day weekend, I traveled down the narrow two-lane road, passing turnoffs for such bucolic-sounding streets as Pleasant Lane and Evergreen Court. On the left, I found the historic site and parked my car in a nearly empty half-circle dirt area next to a blue Chevrolet pickup truck with an American flag decal in the back window.
An older couple was also there reading the entry plaza’s first interpretive marker leading to the Legacy Trail, Commemorative Circle and Crash Site Narrative Space:
“Paul Wellstone loved Minnesota, and especially the Iron Range, where he began his first Senate campaign in 1989,” the marker read. “The Range’s history of progressive politics and its working class character fit Wellstone perfectly. He often referred to the Range as ‘my second home.’ ”
The memorial, paid for by donations to the Wellstone Action Fund, is maintained by the Minnesota Conservation Corps. All of the locally mined taconite rock used for the gravel walking paths is more than 2 billion years old.
One of the interpretive markers is about 2,000 feet from the actual crash site, and I saw evidence of visitors who had left the path, trampling the brush as they ventured into the forest to get closer to the crash scene.
In the Commemorative Circle, as I sat on one of the six benches carved from Virginia slate, I saw a grayish black stone monument straight ahead, with the others to my right and left.
Someone had left a single red rose for Marcia Wellstone Markuson and, in addition to one of the famous green “Wellstone!” campaign signs to the right, Paul and Sheila’s monument was dotted with mementos — buttons reading “Peace,” holy cards and eagle feathers.
I read the poem near the entry plaza created by former Wellstone intern LeAnn Littlewolf and re-read a quote from the marker near my car:
“Politics is not just about power and money games,” Wellstone said. “Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about peace and justice.”
The Wellstone Memorial and Historic Site is just off Highway 53 near Eveleth. Look for a brown sign on the right shortly after the turnoff for Highway 37 to Hibbing.
Sarah Johnson is a freelance writer who lives in St. Louis Park.