Sheila Wellstone uses position to educate

by Ken Kaffine

Sheila Wellstone never had any interest in public speaking. “I never would have thought I would be able to stand up and talk in front of people. I remember when Paul was running I would be asked to introduce him and I thought … one minute … one minute … how can I ever do it?”
But public speaking has become something that Wellstone has been doing a great deal of for the six years that her husband, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., has been in office. Wellstone has given numerous addresses on domestic abuse.
“For too long it’s been ‘it’s not our business’ and it hasn’t been treated like a crime. It is absolutely a crime,” Wellstone said.
Since her husband was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990, Wellstone has used what she describes as her unique position and “great opportunity” as a senator’s wife to play a role in raising awareness and educating audiences about domestic violence and what it does to women and children.
Wellstone makes periodic trips to the University to talk about the issue, the most recent being last November when she spoke to the University’s Women Club.
She was also involved with fund-raising efforts last February on the behalf of the daughter of Kami Talley, a University student who was shot to death at work, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, Louis Buggs.
Wellstone’s active political involvement today is the result of a slow evolution from humble beginnings.
Sheila Ison was born to Ellen and Delmer Ison on Aug. 18, 1944, in Washington, D.C. Her parents had both grown up in coal-mining families in the eastern region of Kentucky. Ellen Ison never graduated from high school.
At the time of her birth, her father was in the military and worked at the Pentagon. He later worked for the Department of Transportation and then for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington, D.C.
Wellstone describes her mother as being “typical of that generation — she was a stay-at-home wife.” Wellstone also goes on to say that her mother was a very wise woman and that “one doesn’t necessarily have to have all the degrees — even a high school degree.”
It was when her father moved to Arlington, Va., in 1960 that Sheila met her future husband, Paul Wellstone. There was a tradition at their high school that the students all go to the beach for the first week of summer vacation and then come back to get summer jobs.
During the summer of 1960, when they were both 16 years old, Paul and Sheila both happened to be staying with friends who rented the same beach house. They met on the second day of their vacation and Paul asked her if she would go to a beach party with him.
She accepted and, as Sheila puts it, “The rest is history — we’ve been together ever since!”
After high school, the couple went to separate colleges for a year. After that year apart, they were married on Aug. 24, 1963. Paul continued his education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill while she worked at the library there. Her husband received a degree in political science in 1965 and in 1969, at age 25, earned his doctorate in political science.
During the same year, Paul accepted a teaching position at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. During the 21 years that Paul spent teaching at Carlton, he became politically active in grass-roots organizing on behalf of family farmers.
Wellstone said she felt the best way she could support what they were doing was to stay at home with their three children while her husband was teaching and organizing. Wellstone also worked at the library in Northfield’s high school for 11 years.
When her husband first expressed an interest in running for the Senate, Wellstone felt that she was “probably one of the very few people who thought he had the chance to win it.” She felt that “if he had the opportunity to get out and talk to and meet people … because of the way he so believed in improving the lives of people … I knew he had a chance. I knew no one could do it like him.”
Wellstone had few hesitations or concerns regarding the impact that Paul’s running for the Senate might have on her and her family. “It would have been difficult if our children were very young,” she said. But Mark, their youngest child, was a senior in high school when Paul was elected.
The couple thought that it would provide them with an excellent opportunity for them to start doing things together. Wellstone had wondered what she would do once the kids were gone.
Speaking out for domestic abuse awareness has become a new career for her. “My life has changed completely,” she said.
It was when Wellstone worked at the high school library that the issue of domestic violence caught her attention. She saw a lot of newspaper and magazine articles with stories about the horrendous murders and beatings of women, but she never saw the stories go beyond reporting the end result. She said she wondered, “Why is this happening? Is there something that can be done about this?”
The first year that her husband was in office, Wellstone traveled throughout Minnesota educating herself about domestic violence. She went to shelters and advocacy groups. She talked to battered women and children and to people running the programs to get an understanding of the issue.
Wellstone became frustrated with what she considered to be incredible injustices and undue hardships that battered women were facing. “Many times women were finding that when they were finally able to leave these situations, they were being denied health care coverage because they were ‘victims of battering.'”
Paul Wellstone has recently introduced legislation that would prohibit insurance companies from using battering as a pre-existing condition in determining health care coverage. Sheila and Paul Wellstone worked closely together drafting that legislation.
Another recent frustration for Wellstone is a situation where a women’s shelter was denied automobile insurance on their van. The van is used in a shelter in a rural area for picking up women who call and need immediate help. The car insurance company turned down their application because they were worried that one of the batterers would do damage to the van.
Wellstone believes that Minnesota has some of the country’s best programs when it comes to aiding women and children who are victims of domestic abuse. Although she is hesitant to single out any one program, Wellstone does believe that the Harriet Tubman Center in Minneapolis does some of the finest work in the country with the victims of domestic violence.
The Tubman Center is one of the few shelters in the country that is an open part of the community. The center stresses that there is no reason for these women to hide anymore, they have nothing to be ashamed of, Wellstone said.
With Paul Wellstone being up for re-election Nov. 5, Sheila Wellstone is gearing up for the home-stretch of a Senate campaign that she said is completely unpredictable.
When asked if she would have rather stayed the wife of a college professor and led a less conspicuous life in Northfield, Wellstone smiled and said, “You know, life in Northfield was wonderful. I wouldn’t have wanted to have raised my children anywhere else. But part of what makes life interesting and exciting is doing different things. I loved those years and I love the years now.”