They came straight from work with kids in tow. They came early, waiting patiently in lines wrapped around the Williams Center, packing the 20,000-seat venue to the rafters. Some sat on the floor and those who couldn't get in stood outside listening to stories about the late Sen. Paul D. Wellstone, chiming in with their own about how the scrappy senator with a short frame and big heart had personally touched their lives.
As they filed into the arena, some touched and toured the green bus that had become synonymous in Minnesota with Wellstone's tireless campaign habits. There was some gawking, to be sure, at the dignitaries who attended the event, including former president Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), former vice president Al Gore and Jesse L. Jackson.
But mainly the people came to celebrate the lives of Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson and three other campaign staffers who died in a plane crash Friday.
There was so much applause -- and so many senators and representatives -- that it might well have been a presidential State of the Union address, and so much foot-stomping at other times that the event could have been mistaken for a lively political convention. But mostly there were people with heavy hearts who felt compelled to come and commiserate with others who believed the Wellstone philosophy that politics is, and should always be, about improving people's lives.
"He was good for Minnesota and integral to what I consider the identity of Minnesota," said Dawn Messerly, 33, who grew up in St. Paul and first voted for Wellstone in 1990 while she was a student at Carleton College. "People voted for Paul Wellstone because he was Paul Wellstone. It will be hard to replace him."
The same was said about the others who died along with the Wellstones: campaign aides Will McLaughlin, 23, Tom Lapic, 59, and Mary McEvoy, 49.
Pilots Richard Conry, 55, and Michael Guess, 30, also perished in the crash near Eveleth. There were personal anecdotes about how McLaughlin, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, got under Wellstone's skin and vice versa. In one familiar story, the senator would tell McLaughlin to pull up to cars with a Wellstone sticker; Wellstone would wave vigorously and appear dejected when people wouldn't wave back.
McLaughlin let this go on for several days before finally telling Wellstone that the windows were tinted and they couldn't see him waving.
Folk and gospel singers closed the service with "Stand Up, Keep Fighting," written a few months ago for the campaign. In words and song, they embraced a man who unabashedly embraced the word "liberal," who worked for the homeless, small farmers and wives abused by husbands.
"No one ever wore the title of senator better or used it less," said a close friend, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "Paul Wellstone didn't just imagine a better America. He helped build it."
Although organizers said they did not want to turn the service into a political rally, there was certainly plenty of politics from a decidedly partisan crowd. There were scattered boos around the auditorium for Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I). And there were loud cheers when the Clintons, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and other Democratic stalwarts were shown on the big screen above the crowd. But the loudest yells were reserved for former vice president Walter F. Mondale, who is expected to accept the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nomination to replace Wellstone on the ballot against Norm Coleman, the former St. Paul mayor who is the Republican nominee for the seat.
"They will know we were here," Wellstone's friend Rick Kahn implored the crowd. "They will know we made a difference. They will know we left the place a much better place than we found it. A week from today, there will be a choice to continue his legacy in the U.S. Senate or bring it forever to an end. Tonight we are filled to overflowing with overwhelming grief and sorrow. We are begging you. We are begging you to help us win this Senate election for Paul Wellstone. We can make his dreams come true if you help us win this election for Paul Wellstone."
DFL Chairman Mike Erlandson said the tone of the election following Wellstone's death was likely to change.
"I think there will be some desire to contrast, but more folks will be talking a lot more about themselves as opposed to why not to vote for the other person," he said.