The Joan and Walter Mondale story

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Joan Mondale - Walter Mondale

Photo: NTB
In 1979, Vice President Walter Mondale and his wife, Joan, visited Norway. Here they are seen in Fjærlan in Sogn, April 15, 1979.

Michael Kleiner
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

The video from The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library is in black and white, the graininess indicating the passage of time. Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale, wearing a Norwegian sweater, trailed by 39 American and Norwegian media, and his Secret Service detail, as he visited Mundal, Norway, a village of 300 people, in April 1979. It is from where his paternal great-grandfather, Frederik Mundal (Mundal became Mondale), emigrated to Minnesota in 1856. Mondale flashed his trademark smile and laugh. He was as happy to be there as the residents, descendants from his great-grandparents’ time, were to receive him. He sprinkled in Norwegian in his talks and caused excitement visiting Hotel Mundal, which had been operated by the Mundal family since 1891.

By his side was his beloved wife, Joan Adams Mondale.

“If the values my great-grandfather had were anything like my father, he would have been more interested in whether I were honest and decent and I had a good family than the high office I held, though he would have been proud about that, too,” Mondale says on the video. “I think we all wonder about our roots, who preceded us. I never met my grandfather. He was dead before I was born. Of course, I never met my great-grandfather. That’s part of my life that I’d like to connect with if I could. The last time I was here (1975) I walked through the same seter, (summer mountain farm) pastures up in the mountains where my great-grandmother used to herd cattle and make cheese. You wonder what was she thinking about. Why did they leave? What made my great-grandfather, great-grandmother, grandpa and Uncle Ole get in that boat and leave? What kind of things attracted them and drove them from Norway to the United States? It’s an overwhelming feeling. When you look at the beautiful fjord, why would they leave it?”

Walter Mondale

Photo: NTB
Vice President Walter F. Mondale visited Norway in 1979. Here he is seen wearing a traditional Norwegian sweater on board the Fjordbris on his way from Bergen to Mundal.

Walter Mondale’s love for his ancestral country and his Minnesota Norwegian-American community was unequivocal. In the video, the Mondales are seen participating in traditional Norwegian dances with bunad-clad residents. Why wouldn’t Joan be involved? Her lifelong passion was the arts and using it to bridge cultures, and she was nicknamed Joan of Art. Their relationship was such that they respected and reveled in each other’s lifework and contributions. You couldn’t have Walter without Joan and Joan without Walter.

The Joan and Walter Mondale Galleri at Norway House in Minneapolis was dedicated last month on May 17.  It is not the first place dedicated to the couple. In 2018, the Joan and Walter Mondale Commons at the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota was named in their honor and included some of her pottery. At the time, Walter said on the Humphrey School website, while “humbled to see he and his wife’s names on the wall,” he was especially proud “because it reminds people of what a great person Joan was.

“The Humphrey School is about learning and it’s about service. It’s about decency and honesty. And if they look at what Joan’s life was about, all those elements were there all the time. I tried to do my part as well, and we were a good team for all those years. So maybe our presence on the walls will cause a few people to ask ‘what did they do?’and it will inspire more of the same.”

You won’t be able to avoid Mondale inspirations in Minneapolis. For Walter, the Humphrey honor was doubly special because the fellow Minnesotan and Norwegian American was a mentor to Mondale, who replaced Humphrey in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson picked Humphrey as his vice president. The Joan Mondale Gallery exhibition area was established at The Textile Center in 2004.

The law school at the University of Minnesota was renamed Walter F. Mondale Hall in 2002, and he allowed the ice hockey team to be called Fighting Mondales.

Walter and Joan were each children of reverends. Though Walter’s mother was born in Iowa, her father was an immigrant from Seaforth, Ontario, Canada, and she also had English and Scottish ancestry. Walter and Joan’s childhoods shaped their future commitments to social justice. Walter was born in Ceylon, Minn., and grew up in Elmore. The Mondale family was poor, as his father’s farms endured foreclosure in the 1920s.

Mondale Galeri

Photo: John Kaul
The Mondale Galleri at Norway House in Minneapolis is a tribute to Joan and Walter Mondale.

Joan was born in Eugene, Ore. The Adams family moved to Wallingford, Penn., outside Philadelphia, when Joan was 5 years old. The children attended Media Friends School, the first integrated Quaker school in Pennsylvania, followed by a public school in Columbus, Ohio. They moved to St. Paul, Minn., when Joan was a high school senior, as her father became the first chaplain at Macalester College.

She matriculated at Macalester and studied pottery and crafts and competed on the diving team. She spent a semester abroad in France studying religious architecture. Joan earned her degree in 1952, majoring in history with minors in art and French. Her first jobs were as a slide librarian at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and an assistant in education at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where she lectured and led tours.

Two years earlier, Walter Mondale had graduated from Macalester and was now attending the University of Minnesota Law School. They were fixed up on a blind date and attended a photo exhibition on the first date. It took only 53 days for them to become engaged and were married on Dec. 27, 1955, officiated by her father. Ted was born in 1957, Eleanor in 1960, William in 1962.

At 32, Walter was appointed State Attorney General, the youngest ever. His focus was on consumer affairs and in 1962 he organized state attorney generals from around the country to support a Supreme Court case that made the right to a public defender implemented nationwide. In 1964, Mondale, then 36, was appointed to complete Humphrey’s U.S. Senate term.

The Mondale family moved to Washington. While Joan shielded the children from the spotlight, she didn’t mind appearing with her husband or on his behalf. She had her own agenda in her advocacy for the arts. They became known as a “Washington power couple.”

Joan saw an interconnection between art and politics. In her 1972 book, Politics and Art, she wrote, “There is a close relationship between the concerns of the artist and those of the politician. Both deal with human emotions and human conditions. Both seek to tell us about the good and the bad in the world around us. Many times, the artist is commenting on the same conditions of social outrage and human failure that the politician is seeking to correct.”

In 1969, the Mondales decided to live on the food budget of a welfare recipient for a week to “walk in the other’s shoes.”

“You begin to understand the desperation of people who must live like this,” Joan Mondale told the syndicated columnist Carl Rowan. “It’s degrading.”

“We tried to work out a way of helping to improve society during those times,” said Walter Mondale. “Joan wanted to do that in many ways, but especially through the arts.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate, her husband was successful having the Fair Housing Act be amended to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. In the 1970s, he advocated for consumer protection, childcare, poverty reform, public healthcare, and increased education spending.  In 1966, he won a full term to the Senate, winning the two-candidate Democratic-Farm-Labor Party primary with 90.97% of the vote, then took the four-candidate general election with 53.94%. In 1972, he won a four-way primary with 89.88% and the general with 56.67%. In 1976, Democratic presidential nominee Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia selected Mondale as his running mate, and they were elected. However, their hopes for re-election in 1980 went down in landslide, and Mondale suffered a landslide defeat when he ran for president in 1984, but he made history selecting New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his vice president, the first woman on a major party ticket.

Despite this, the Mondales left a positive imprint on Washington. Walter had told Carter the president-vice president relationship should be a partnership. For the most part, subsequent presidents and vice presidents have continued that.

Joan gave tours of the National Art Gallery and the Vice President’s mansion became a museum of its own exhibiting art work of  Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Hopper, Louise Nevelson, and Ansel Adams. She chaired the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, appointed by Carter. She urged public and private support of the arts. Because of her efforts, a national policy was developed where 1% of a building had to include art, and she convinced the National Park Service to encourage art by local artists in national parks. She founded a food co-op in D.C.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Walter Mondale ambassador to Japan, but Joan Mondale became more popular than her spouse. She learned Japanese-style pottery. The mayor of Kyoto and others were recipients of a gift of her pottery made in the Mashiko style. Bridging the cultures, Joan collaborated with the State Department’s Art-in-Embassies program importing American paintings to decorate the embassy and arranged bilingual tours.

“Public arts say people who pass through the space are important,” she told English-language Japanese newspaper The Daily Yomiuri in 1994.

She immediately jumped back into the Minnesota art world upon their return to Minnesota in 1996. In just two months, she developed an airport arts program, a film series and joined the boards of the Walker Art Center and Minnesota Orchestra. In 1998, she published Letters from Japan, about her experiences in the country.

Joan died of demetia in 2014 at 83. Walter, who continued to work as a lawyer, supported progressive causes and higher education, especially at the University of Minnesota, died of natural causes in 2021 at 93.

An answer to Walter’s question why his ancestors left Mundal, may lie in that many immigrants wanted to have future generations have it better than they did. The Mondales made it their life’s work.

“She took on this role as a public champion of the arts because she thought it was important,” said son Ted–who served in the State Senate in Minnesota–at the dedication of the Commons. “She decided that was going to be her role, and she took it on with great enthusiasm. She would travel with Dad a lot and keep her own schedule. He would talk things through with her because her opinion really mattered to him.”

“Over my many years in politics, I have rarely seen a political couple so effective in serving together to advance the public interest,” said Jim Johnson, a longtime Mondale friend and political aide, at the Commons dedication. “Much of the credit goes to Mrs. Mondale and her insightful approach to public service.”

Also see Norway House dedicates new Mondale Galleri in the June 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit;