President Joe Biden, state leaders, friends and family gathered in Minneapolis on Sunday to remember Walter “Fritz” Mondale, a preacher’s son from southern Minnesota who rose all the way to the White House, forever changing the role of vice president.
“Fritz was a giant in American political history,” Biden told the audience, noting his five decades of friendship with Mondale. “Fritz was a master legislator who shone a light on those who needed it most.”
As a U.S. senator, Mondale was a champion of civil rights and social safety net programs and drew early attention to the crisis of climate change. As the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1984, he made history by choosing a woman as his running mate.
Mondale, who died last year at age 93, did it all with humility and a style of politics that stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing polarization of the day.
“Walter Mondale understood something fundamental: That we are at our best when we build not walls but bridges,” said historian Jon Meacham, Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University. “Not when we point fingers, but when we lend a hand; not when we fear, but when we hope.”
The memorial was held on the University of Minnesota campus, where Mondale studied and later taught thousands of students in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs in his post-politics life. Professor and colleague Larry Jacobs recalled that some students would tell Mondale there’s too much gridlock in politics, but “then he would give witness to the power of American democracy” to get things done.
As Minnesota’s youthful attorney general, Mondale persuaded almost half of all state attorneys general in the country to support the right of counsel for defendants who could not afford their own lawyer.
In the U.S. Senate, he was a key figure in the passage of landmark federal civil rights laws, including the Fair Housing Act and Title IX, and a crucial voice for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was a sponsor of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, legislation that would restrict development and preserve wilderness along several rivers, including the St. Croix. Mondale helped secure the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act in the White House.
“He modeled humility, he modeled honestly, he modeled respect for others, he modeled inclusiveness that really engaged the people around him,” said Minnesota civil rights icon Josie Johnson in a video message played at the memorial.
For four years in the White House, from 1977 to 1981, Mondale transformed the role of vice president as second-in-command to President Jimmy Carter. He moved the office into the West Wing and forged an active partnership in policy and decision-making.
In a tribute to Mondale read at the service, Carter said his “ideas and energy changed the office he held forever, and his intelligence, experience, humor, and determination made me better at mine.” Barack Obama said in a letter he’ll always be grateful to Mondale for dramatically reshaping the office so then-Vice President Biden “could be the last in the room for decisions during my administration.”
After serving four years under Carter, Mondale was the Democratic nominee for president in 1984, choosing Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate — the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket.
“I still remember her standing there next to him in that red dress, that string of pearls,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who started as Mondale’s intern in college and continued to seek his counsel throughout her political career. “It was in that moment that I knew anything and everything was possible.”
He lost in a landslide to incumbent President Ronald Reagan in 1984, but still won his home state. Even in defeat, he called for continuing to fight for an America that is “just and fair.” Klobuchar said it wasn’t just his decency that made Mondale stand out, it was his dignity in defeat.
“When saddled with enormous setbacks, Fritz didn’t stand down, he stood up,” Klobuchar said. “Fritz didn’t crawl under his desk or hide from public view, he simply found a different way to serve.”
His disposition was driven by his faith, which was ever-present in his childhood. His father was a Methodist pastor and his mother taught in Sunday school and played piano at the church, said Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, the senior minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, where Mondale attended.
“It was a potent combination of a heart aflame with rigorous commitment to serve the most vulnerable in society,” said Hart-Anderson. “That theological context formed young Fritz, and it would define his character all his life.”
He didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, the minister added, and was “suspicious of anyone who did.”
Mondale was also remembered for his humanity: a family man devoted to his children — Ted, William and Eleanor — and wife Joan, the woman he proposed to after only seven dates. Eleanor died of cancer in 2011. Joan died in 2014 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
He came from a stoic Norwegian family, but was funnier than most people realized, said those who knew him. Mondale loved Shakespeare, Meacham said, but also fishing, Dairy Queen and cigars.
“At 91 he was still fishing for walleye, and unlike me, he was catching them,” Gov. Tim Walz said, calling Mondale “always just the boy from southern Minnesota.”
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith recalled the first time she saw Mondale, standing in the back of a garage in St. Louis Park in 1989. She had signed up to volunteer for Ted Mondale’s campaign for a seat in the state Senate. She was star-struck by Fritz.
“The first major-party presidential nominee to put a woman on the ticket, a bona fide political celebrity, just standing there, in khakis,” Smith said. “‘How ya doin?’ he said. ‘Thanks for showing up.'”
They kept in touch, getting lunch over the years as her trajectory followed a similar path as his, rising from a behind-the-scenes political player to United States senator. Mondale returned to the chamber in 2018 to escort Smith to take her oath of office. Later, she said, someone asked Mondale if it was an emotional experience for him being back in the Senate. “Norwegian emotional,” he shrugged.
“Let’s just say I’m feeling some emotions a real Norwegian would never dare to acknowledge,” Smith said at the memorial. “Americans will never forget how much Walter Mondale gave to our country, Minnesotans will never forget the example he set for our state, and those of us in this room will never forget our friend.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism