Remembering Paul Wellstone

Marking the passing of a tireless advocate for peace and justice

By Herbert Kohl

Illustrator: Jean-Claude Lejeune

The late Senator Paul Wellstone.
-photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

Paul and Sheila Wellstone lived in what the poet Seamus Heany called “the republic of conscience.”

My wife Judy and I met the Wellstones before Paul ran for Senate. At the time, he was teaching political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He had been there for 20 years, and I was astonished to discover an exuberant radical professor who seemed like he had just stepped out of an organizing meeting or a union workshop.

Myles Horton introduced us to Paul and Sheila. Myles was the founder of the Highlander Folk Center, an education center in Tennessee that was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement and continues to be involved in social justice struggles.

Paul had been an organizer for SOCM (Save our Cumberland Mountains) and had visited Highlander many times during his organizing days and considered Myles one of his mentors. He met Sheila through his work at SOCM. They were a wonderful and unlikely couple – a radical Jew from Washington, D.C., and a radical Christian native of Appalachia. But the force of the two of them working together and their love for each other made them, in my opinion, the most effective progressive activists that I have encountered in 20 years.

Paul was, above all, an educator. I had the chance to watch him teach and to participate in one of his classes, the one that played a major role in his getting elected to the Senate. It was a class at Carleton College on community organizing. Every year for 20 years Paul taught 50 to 70 students the theory and practice of grassroots organizing. Then they went out into communities throughout the state of Minnesota to practice what they learned. Over the years, Paul’s students became union organizers, teachers, activist lawyers, community development workers, elected public officials, public health doctors, etc. They were spread out over the state of Minnesota, and when Paul decided to run for the U.S. Senate, he had his campaign organization in place.

Paul was also an intellectual. I remember being asked to sketch out a program for school reform for him during his first campaign for Senate. I put together a working paper and a few speeches and gave them to him. He read and reread them, and then we had conversations about the ideas contained in them. I came away finding my own ideas clarified, challenged, and reshaped. I realized Paul was rethinking everything I said and struggling with where he stood.

Paul had an unshakeable moral center and acted on the basis of his values, though in the Senate he was not beyond bargaining and compromising on specific issues. But as a politician he did not act on the basis of expediency, nor did he protect himself from criticism. In fact, he loved confronting his critics directly.

Nothing was trivial to Paul and no person was unimportant. He was as thoughtful, sensitive, and caring with people as he was astute and serious about ideas.

Paul was on the Senate Education Committee, and I spent some time in Washington assisting him and his staff. In his role on the committee he had to be an educator. It was apparent that the other Senators didn’t think about educational issues from the perspective of children or teachers. They listened to their staff members — who listened to lobbyists and experts — about how to not offend large blocks of voters. Paul was different: He understood the issues himself and he sought out substantial conversations with educators he trusted. He based his positions on his commitment to social justice and equity and his knowledge of how learning takes place. Often he did not succeed with moving the Senate, but he kept ideas alive on the national scene. He troubled others in the way that Socrates troubled people – with ideas and with questions.

Sheila was also passionate and intelligent about creating what Miles Horton called “islands of decency in a sea of troubles.” She also worked with the Senate’s education committee and was a tireless advocate for children. She fought domestic violence and managed to help shepherd a bill through Congress that makes it a felony for abusive husbands who are issued restraining orders to own or possess guns.

For Judy and me, the deaths of Sheila and Paul leave a vacuum in our personal lives. Much more significant, however, is the vacuum in the political life of the nation. But I can imagine Paul saying, “Don’t mourn. Organize!”

Herbert Kohl ( is a writer and teacher. He is currently Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Education at the University of San Francisco.