Tevlin: A decade later, Wellstone's son finds way home

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2012 - 9:20 PM
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David Wellstone in 2003

Photo: Stormi Greener, Star Tribune

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The days and months following the death of his parents and sister in a plane crash were a black hole for Dave Wellstone, a blur of passing time and incredible grief in which he couldn't even bring himself to cook a meal or go outside.

The son of Sen. Paul and Sheila Wellstone lived on hot dishes, memories and the kindness of friends and strangers.

Then one day an odd package came in the mail, sent to him by mistake. As he opened the box there was the strong smell of jet fuel. Inside he found remnants from the crash, a charred watch and a partially melted wedding ring. It made him so sick he collapsed.

This October will mark the 10th anniversary of the plane crash that killed the populist senator, his wife and daughter, Marcia. It will also mark a new beginning for their oldest son, Dave. He has written a book, to be released in October, that chronicles a kind of normal "Leave It to Beaver" family life before his dad got involved in politics, as well as Dave's retreat from life to a remote home in California, and now his return to Minnesota to further the ideals his father championed.

"Becoming Wellstone; Healing from Tragedy and Carrying on My Father's Legacy" describes how Dave first heard that the plane carrying his father, mother and sister had disappeared from radar. The news put him in a zombie-like state, a feeling that he was watching someone else pay the check at Bakers Square, then make the long drive to the Iron Range.

"That was when I saw the smoke," he wrote. "It was a dark, dirty plume cutting up into the slate gray background of heavy cloud cover. I knew right away what I was seeing. It was the plane."

The grief made Dave incapable of normal life for months. He recounts seeing someone in a jumpsuit come to his house and shut off the water because he hadn't opened or paid his bills. He talks about the strange encounters with people after the crash and odd insults by people who joked about the deaths, such as a radio personality joking that he was dressing up for Halloween as a dead Paul Wellstone.

"It was pretty hard," Dave said in an interview. "Though I go by Dave, I'm Paul Wellstone Jr."

Dave needed to get out of Minnesota, where the memories were frequent and raw. So he moved with his two children to the Santa Cruz Mountains in California and basically dropped out.

"It was good for me," he said. "It was very solitary, five acres at the end of the road. But after a while, it wasn't so good for me.'

In the book, Dave portrays his father as almost obsessed with social causes, so much so that he considered going to movies and playing games a waste of time. His mother was more of a "June Cleaver" type who relished home life.

"She loved his passion, but worried sometimes about his judgment," Dave wrote.

There are no real bombshells in the book, but among interesting tidbits was his father's belief that his vote against the war in Iraq would lose him the election. Dave also dismisses the conspiracy theories that his father was murdered.

The book does not dwell on Wellstone's work in the Senate, apart from his eventually successful attempts to pass a mental health parity bill that today makes it easier for the mentally ill to get care.

In fact, Dave was called to action from his escape in California to help push the bill after the crash, and it was one of the things that helped him begin to recover.

"Working on mental health issues got me re-energized," he said. "It wasn't my issue, the issue found me. I started thinking maybe my name and what I learned could be useful."

After the bill passed, however, Dave found himself back in California, retreated from the world. "It wasn't so much that I felt sad or afraid, but that I felt nothing," he wrote.

Dave also began to rebuild his spirit by rebuilding his home on Amigo Road in California, laying stones, building gardens and orchards, a massage room, bocce ball court and a library house. He turned the property into what he hopes might be a retreat for writers and others working toward social change.

"It's a work in progress, but I hope it can be a place to find peace, like I did," he said.

Saturday, Dave moved into a duplex in St. Paul. He has remarried and plans to start a nonprofit to advocate for mental health and addiction treatment. Though the bills passed, they lack teeth and follow-through.

"It's just sort of time to get back into it," said Dave.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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