Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Paul Wellstone Fifteen Years Later: Big Shoes to Fill

Today -- Oct. 25 -- is the fifteenth anniversary of the day Sen. Paul Wellstone, members of his family and aides were killed when their plane crashed on the Iron Range. Later that day, Wellstone was scheduled to meet with the Duluth News Tribune editorial board, of which I was a member. When we were informed of the tragedy, I sat down and wrote this column (below), which appeared in the next morning's News Tribune. I reprinted it here on this blog at previous anniversaries but wanted to honor a great man again today. He certainly left us with big shoes to fill.-- Jim

Wellstone Leaves Big Shoes to Fill
by Jim Heffernan
(Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, October 26, 2002 and reprinted in my book, Cooler Near the Lake, published in 2008.)

Paul Wellstone gone? Someone so full of life, of exuberance, of zest, of desire to do good by his fellow man–gone in an instant on a drizzly day right here in the Northland? Can't be, you think. But it's all too true.

I knew Wellstone the way a home-state journalist is likely to know a U.S. Senator. Since he was elected to the Senate, we saw him a couple of times a year. He'd come through for a visit with the editorial board, updating us on what was going on in Washington.

Always upbeat, often passionate about what he believed in, the interviews–chats, really–with Wellstone were something we looked forward to. Politics aside, I liked him personally. I admired his resolve to stand up for what he believed in.

I first met Wellstone in 1982 when he ran for Minnesota state auditor–and lost. Aching to be a major player in the liberal political traditions of his adopted state, the then political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield ran for a state constitutional office, probably seeing it as a stepping stone for bigger and better things to come.

I don't think he'd have made much of a state auditor, although he'd have worked at it. The job would have bored him. Wellstone had bigger things churning in that brain–a passion for helping people who need help and a conviction that government should do what it can to make people's lives better. In short, he was a liberal.

The word liberal has become a pejorative in some (conservative) circles. Those who disliked what Wellstone stood for know he was, perhaps, the most liberal member of the Senate. Wellstone wore that label proudly, unashamedly.

On the occasion of another of our editorial board meetings, after he'd been elected to the Senate, the subject of health care came up. Wellstone felt strongly that America's health care system was broken, and of course he was right. It still isn't fixed. In our conversation–four of us around a table–he became so impassioned about the subject that he began to tear up.

The rest of us, all male, became uncomfortable at his emotional display, but I never forgot it. And, reflecting on it, I could see that was what was best about Wellstone. He really felt what he believed in. He truly was a “bleeding-heart liberal” in the finest sense of that often cynical description. The world needs bleeding-heart liberals, and Wellstone filled that bill almost better than anyone else in a position to help shape American policy.

Finally, on another visit with us, I went to the newspaper's lobby to greet him and guide him to our meeting room, and as we walked up the stairs I noticed that his shoes–loafers–were shot. I mean shot. Hobos heating bean cans over fires in railroad yards had better shoes. Long cracks across the top, exposing his socks beneath, shabby soles.

I kidded him about it, saying something like, “A United States senator can't afford decent shoes?”

Wellstone wasn't a bit abashed. He muttered something about not having time to worry about shoes–too much to do and too little time to do it in. I later wrote a column about the senator's shabby shoes, but I never heard from him about it. Still too busy.

We had another editorial board meeting scheduled with Wellstone, this one Friday afternoon, to talk about the newspaper's endorsement in the Senate race this year. An airplane crash intervened. He was dead, along with his wife and daughter and others on the plane.

As the gray day wore on Friday, and details kept pouring in, for some reason my mind kept going back to those tattered shoes. Who will fill them?

No one quite like Paul Wellstone, whose unlikely life journey took him to the place where his death could affect the balance of the U.S. Senate at a time when the nation appears to be poised for a war he opposed, and when so many other issues remain unresolved that need a committed liberal voice.

Life goes on, but for the time being we'd better put it on hold for a truly good man who was more concerned about providing shoes for those who couldn't afford them than what he wore himself.


Click HERE for today's MPR story by Dan Kraker.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Vietnam: So far away, yet so close to home...

I’ve been watching the gripping PBS documentary “The Vietnam War.” I might have been drafted to serve in Vietnam — I was the right age — but I escaped that through a college student deferment and later enlistment in the Minnesota Army National Guard.

So I am able to sit here today, now a senior citizen, unscathed by direct involvement in that terrible war, a war so vividly and unsettlingly recalled nightly on the television documentary and fought by so many of my contemporaries.

For the most part, I also missed the gravity of the goings on in Southeast Asia at the time, but not entirely. I was in my mid-20s in the mid-1960s, a fledgling journalist, still single, intent on having a good time, although I was obligated to be a “weekend warrior,” as National Guard personnel were often called.

Still, there was the niggling concern throughout that President Lyndon Johnson, so intent on “winning” in Vietnam, might actually resort to activating National Guard and Army Reserve personnel, safely training in their home towns — towns like Duluth. He never did call us up, though, much to our relief. The PBS documentary pointed out that he didn’t dare: opposition to the war, already mounting, would become too great.

So we — the we being those of us in uniform one evening a week or one weekend a month and for two weeks of active duty camp in the summer — rode out the war safely at home while many others of our generation were wading through rice paddies and crawling through jungles and dying on battlefields half a world away. There’s a wall in Washington bearing the names of the 58,000-plus Americans who didn’t make it. 
One segment of the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC
with names of fallen servicemen (Source: Wikipedia)

But the war did hit me in a striking manner during one period of my home-front military service. Midway through my six-year obligation, I transferred from the Army National Guard unit operating out of the Duluth Armory to a U.S. Army Reserve unit headquartered on Park Point (in a building still in use).

Because my work as a newspaper reporter often conflicted with regular unit meetings, I was allowed to make up those meetings at various other times, working in the unit’s office with permanent reserve personnel for a few hours. I was a typist in my regular duties, and the Army always had plenty of typing to do. More typing than shooting.

Off in a corner of our “orderly room” (Army jargon for office) was a desk occupied by an officer not directly associated with our unit. He was a regular Army officer, a career man with the rank of captain, assigned to the Duluth-Superior area to carry out a grisly task.

His last name was Wood (I don’t recall his first name), known to us and addressed by us as Captain Wood. Captain Wood kept largely to himself, not mixing it up much with the Reserve troops. And he’d be there sporadically when I was, his desk occasionally empty for the day. I learned quickly why Captain Wood was often missing. It was his job to inform immediate survivors — usually parents of soldiers from this area who had been killed in Vietnam — of the deaths of their sons.

In that period of our military history, parents of soldiers were not told of the deaths of their sons by telegram or other means. An Army officer, usually accompanied by a regular-army sergeant, drove to the homes of the dead soldiers’ parents and other loved ones to inform them in person.

That was what Captain Wood was assigned to do in this region, along with helping survivors arrange for burial and other details. And during the time I was an observer of his activities, he was kept plenty busy. Someone in the orderly room would inquire about Captain Wood’s absence on any given day and be told he had gone to Ashland or Hibbing or Ely or to homes in Duluth or Superior to tell parents that their sons had lost their lives in Vietnam.

While I didn’t get to know Captain Wood well, I being a flunky enlisted man and he being an officer, I was in his presence quite often and I don’t think I ever saw him smile. A small man, with dark hair and eyes, always in a neatly pressed Class A (dress) uniform, he had good reason to be somber, to be reticent.


Away from the battlefield itself, I can’t imagine a more stressful military duty. And it showed on Captain Wood.