Over and over in his improbable first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1990, the 5-foot, 5-inch liberal professor Paul Wellstone would bounce up and down on the balls of his feet, jab the air repeatedly with his finger and shout that he would be a senator for the "little fellers, not the Rockefellers."
His politics, he repeatedly said, were about "improving people's lives" and "the fact that too few people have too much power and say and too many people don't have enough."
Wellstone often was derided as an anachronistic 1960s-style radical and a polarizer.
But his friends and foes on Friday invariably agreed that his affinity and passion for the poor and every manner of downtrodden people were his defining legacy. And he improved thousands of lives in countless ways, they said, through personal connections and help he offered, and through his political achievements.
"There have been few people in our history who so naturally represented the concerns of people who have no voice in American life," said Pat Forciea, his 1990 campaign manager. "He had no political peers. He didn't view any issue as risky or insurmountable."
Wellstone enjoyed the company of people who were not so successful. They were not props for his politics. He was famous for talking not just to the customers of the cafes he loved to frequent, but for going into the kitchen, talking up the dishwashers and fry cooks, urging them not only to vote for him but also to demand more for themselves.
He befriended U.S. Capitol security guards and brought them home to dinner. But he remembered names and family members of Minnesotans at all levels, as people who waited to shake his hand every year at the State Fair found out.
Wellstone was the son of immigrant Russian Jews and grew up in a modest red brick house on a cul-de-sac in Arlington, Va.
His father was Leon Wexelstein, a frustrated playwright who ended up working for the U.S. Information Agency under Edward R. Murrow. His mother, Minnie Danishevsky, grew up in New York City and was the daughter of a garment factory worker and union activist. The family name was later Anglicized because of anti-Semitic bias, Wellstone said.
Late-night discussions over sponge cake and tea at the kitchen table with his father, who was sympathetic to Socialist economics but a foe of Bolshevism, informed his world view.
His upbringing was middle-class and comfortable enough but was deeply affected by a great trauma, his older brother Stephen's descent into mental illness, a form of severe depression that put him into an institution and plunged the family into debt.
The bills for treatment forced his mother to take a job as a school cafeteria worker, and Wellstone later said he was ridiculed by classmates who considered him "white trash."
Wellstone's passion for underdogs and life's most helpless people was shaped by visits to his brother in a mental hospital that he once described as a "snakepit." He became one of the Senate's leading advocates for expanding federal health-care benefits for mental problems and chemical dependency.
He was a full-fledged juvenile delinquent during a rough period in the late 1950s, a time he described as his "rebel without a cause" phase. He confessed to vandalism and stealing cars for joyrides. But he turned his life around and discovered discipline in high-school wrestling, and his passion for the sport earned him a scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
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