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Joan Mondale: Remembering a woman of action, art

Joan Mondale, left, with her husband then-Vice President Walter and Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter. Credit: National Archives/Wikimedia

Joan Mondale, wife of former senator, vice president and presidential candidate Walter Mondale, died at 83 Monday.

First Ladies are often in the public eye, vice-presidential wives seldom. But Joan Mondale gained national recognition as a supporter of the arts — in fact became known as Joan of Arts. She played the traditional role of supportive political wife but also was actively involved on her own in the equal pay and Equal Rights Amendment movements.

She (as her husband) was an honorable, principled person in what in recent years has become a cynical, degraded national politics.  Nothing flashy about them; just good people dedicated to service.

Joan Mondale, the daughter of a minister, was born in Eugene, Ore., and moved with her parents to other state as her father moved to new pastorates. They eventually came to Minnesota, where her father was chaplain of Macalester College in St. Paul, where Walter Mondale was a student.  (His father, too, was a minister).They didn't meet until college.  

They were married after a brief courtship. Fritz Mondale would become Minnesota's attorney general and, then, was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Hubert Humphrey when Humphrey was elected vice president in 1964. He would remain in the Senate until 1976, when chosen by presidential candidate Jimmy Carter to be his running mate. During those years the Mondales lived in Washington, D.C.'s close-in Cleveland Park neighborhood, where Joan Mondale, a ceramicist, was active in school arts programs and volunteered at the National Gallery of Art.

Both Mondales took on active roles in the Carter presidency. Carter, inexperienced in national policy and politics, turned often to Mondale for counsel and help. The Mondales became the first occupants of the vice-presidential mansion on the Naval Observatory grounds on Massachusetts Avenue, which previously had housed the Chief of Naval Operations and his family. (Vice Presidents, until then, had lived in their own private residences, ranging from mansions to modest apartments, depending on their personal financial status). Joan Mondale immediately set about filling the mansion with American arts and crafts of all kinds. A Chihuly piece sat on a grand piano,

She also visited museums, galleries, and schools in the 50 states to encourage and give recognition to achievement in the arts and crafts. President Carter named her honorary chair of the federal Council on Arts and Humanities.

I first met Fritz Mondale in 1964, when I was coordinating a campaign to gain the Democratic vice presidential nomination for Humphrey and Mondale was Minnesota's earnest young attorney general. We traveled together that summer to Atlantic City to set up a Humphrey convention/campaign headquarters at the Shelburne Hotel. I would see and work with him often in ensuing years. I knew Joan Mondale less well but observed that theirs was a devoted marriage and that she had a productive, independent role in politics and the arts.   

After his 1984 defeat for the presidency by Ronald Reagan, Fritz Mondale eventually became U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Joan Mondale wrote regular dispatches from Tokyo for a Minneapolis newspaper which, later, would become a book.

I last saw her, with her husband, several years ago at Hamline University in St. Paul at the advance screening of a film biography of Humphrey to be shown on PBS stations nationally. Afterward they talked not about themselves but with excitement about the civil-rights, social-justice era portrayed in the film and how energizing it was to be reimmersed in it, if only for an evening.

The Mondales had three children, one of whom, Eleanor, died after a long battle against brain cancer in 2011. Fritz Mondale maintains a law office in Minneapolis and remains an active citizen there.

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