A Minnesotan’s pilgrimage to Chapel Hill

Jul. 31, 2014 @ 01:49 PM

Why would a Minnesota woman make a pilgrimage to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus to visit a memorial?
Then, why would she leave without seeing the site that drew her to the campus?
Becky Sydeski, a Minneapolis-based Delta Airlines flight attendant, on a layover at Raleigh-Durham, was spending the night at the Carolina Inn.
“While checking out the great Carolina Inn,” she told me, “I found the picture of Paul Wellstone, along with a mention that there was a memorial garden to him on the UNC campus.”
Wellstone, a U.S. Senator from Minnesota who earned undergraduate (1965) and doctoral (1969) degrees at UNC-CH, died with his wife and daughter in a plane crash on Oct. 25, 2002.
At Carolina, Wellstone earned a Phi Beta Kappa key, won an Atlantic Coast Conference wrestling championship, and was later inducted into National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
He credited Professor Joel Schwartz as his mentor and he came back to Chapel Hill to deliver the first annual Distinguished Alumni Lecture sponsored by the Joel Schwartz Endowment.
A few days before his death, Wellstone, a proud liberal in the tradition of the Minnesota Democrat Farmer Labor (DFL) coalition, had voted against the legislation to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
After Wellstone’s death, Schwartz, together with then Law School Dean Gene Nichol and others, raised funds to establish a small garden memorial just off Polk Place near the center of campus. Schwartz spoke at the dedication of the memorial on Oct. 4, 2004.
Syseski was determined to visit that memorial. “As an active DFLer my whole life, Paul is a hero of mine. I had met him several times at DFL events and had served him on the airplane. He never sat in first class when he flew, and he almost never sat down at all during the flight! He talked and listened to people's concerns the whole time.  His personality was larger than life, and his passion and enthusiasm was contagious.
“I still remember the day of the plane crash. My son had a soccer game and all of the parents were as sad and shocked as if a family member had died. ”
With the help of Carolina Inn guest services staffer Kenan Drum, Syseski searched the campus for the memorial. Drum is a Carolina student and president of the UNC Interfraternity Council.
Sydeski says Drum is enthusiastic about politics and aspires to be governor of North Carolina by 2035.
Ironically, Drum leans politically in a different direction from Wellstone and Sydeski, having interned for Republican legislative caucuses and served as chair of UNC for Romney in 2012.
Drum guided Sydeski to Polk Place where she “walked and walked and asked and asked and I found the Eve Carson garden and a memorial to veterans, but my legs wore out and I gave up.” 
She promises to come back someday to try again to find the memorial to Wellstone.
But she will have to wait for at least a year. The memorial site was in the path of a steam tunnel construction project. The garden has been destroyed by the construction activity.
No wonder Becky Sydeski could not find it.
Campus officials promise the garden will be restored sometime in fall 2015.
Hopefully Sydeski will keep her promise and give Chapel Hill another chance next year to share our tribute to her senator.

D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and online at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Viewers with access to UNC-TV’s digital channel UNC-MX can preview the program on the preceding Friday at 9 p.m. For information or to view prior programs, visit www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch. Many prior episodes of Bookwatch are available for viewing at http://video.unctv.org/program/nc-bookwatch/episodes/.