A life as full as a work of art
MINNEAPOLIS — Family, friends, elected officials and dignitaries past and present gathered at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday afternoon to celebrate the “exuberant” life of former second lady Joan Mondale.
One after another, members of Mondale’s extended tribe of admirers praised her fervent support of public art, her ability to build bridges between people and her warmth.
Mondale died Monday in Minneapolis at 83, her family at her side.
Vice President Joe Biden said he experienced the Mondales’ heartening support when, shortly after he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, his first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident.
“You embraced me, you included me, you brought me in, you got me engaged. … You helped save my sanity,” Biden said.
“Joan of Art,” as she was known, not only fought for public art, she “pushed as hard for equal pay for women, when nobody talked about it but you, Fritz,” Biden said, addressing former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Biden said that when Barack Obama asked him to be his running mate in 2008, the first two people he and his wife, Jill, called were the Mondales.
Joan convinced Jill that she could excel as a second lady even while holding down a full-time college teaching schedule, Biden said.
Joan Adams Mondale was born Aug. 8, 1930. She played on her high school varsity field hockey team and was a varsity cheerleader, said her sister, Jane Canby. Joan went on to earn a degree from Macalester College, meeting Walter Mondale when he was a law student.
The couple married in 1955 and had three children: Ted, Eleanor and William. Eleanor, a television personality, died in 2011 at age 51 of brain cancer.
After Walter Mondale became Jimmy Carter’s running mate in the successful 1976 election, he sparked a “transforming escalation” in the position of the vice presidency, Carter told the congregation.
Likewise, Joan Mondale saw her office of second lady as one with “unlimited opportunities,” Carter said. “She also saw that her husband was not the key person to realize her dreams.”
Instead, she needed to get to the guy in charge.
“Until I met Joan Mondale, I thought Rosalynn was the most persistent woman on Earth,” the former president quipped. “But she had dreams of bringing the national government of the United States of America into the closest affinity with the fine arts … and she had very specific plans on how this should be done.”
Carter, who attended the event with his wife, said that when he first met the Mondales, before deciding to name Walter Mondale as his running mate, “We fell in love with Joan, and we decided that both of them would have to come together.”
Carter spoke of Joan Mondale’s appearance in 22 inches of his meticulous diary entries. On one day, he wrote, “My time choosing the members and directors of the Endowment for the Arts and Humanities exceeds the time I have spent for bringing peace to the Middle East.”
Such was Joan Mondale’s influence in making the arts a priority in Washington, Carter said.
He said he found a phrase that described Joan: “Live your life as if it was a work of art.”
Mondale’s advocacy of the arts made an indelible mark in Minnesota as well as throughout the nation.
She served on the boards of many local arts and civic organizations, including the Walker Art Center and the Minnesota Orchestra. She remained vocal in her support of public art, including as a chairwoman of Hiawatha Light Rail Transit Public Art and Design Committee in the early 2000s. She also served for 18 years on the board of Macalester College.
Mondale “truly believed in the power of art to improve the quality of life for each and every one of us,” said Emily Galusha, former director of the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis.
“She always seemed to me to be an enabler in the best sense of the word — not in the Minnesota treatment model sense of the word,” Galusha said. “She helped make it possible for a lot of art to happen and for a lot of us to see it and enjoy it.”
Mondale embodied a quotation that defines art as “the replacement of indifference with attention,” Galusha said. “I doubt that she ever responded with indifference to any act of creation, and she certainly pushed the rest of us to pay a lot more attention to what we serve our food on, what we hang on our walls and what we listen to and watch.”
Preliminary figures showed that more than 2,100 people in four countries and 26 states live-streamed the memorial service, said Timothy Rose, director of communications for the church. More than 1,000 people were present in the sanctuary, he said.
The Mondales have been longtime members of the church.
Friend Bess Abell joked about how people sometimes became tongue-tied when introducing second lady Joan Mondale.
Once, she was introduced as “first wife of the vice president,” and once as “second wife of the vice president,” Abell said. Abell apologized to Carter as she related yet another unwitting title bestowed upon Mondale: “the vice of the president,” eliciting giggles from the congregation.
Another longtime friend, Judy Whittlesey, called Mondale’s life “exuberant” and fondly recalled her time campaigning with her friend. She called Mondale a “self-styled conservationist” who never left a hotel room without turning out all the lights.
“To this day I give every hotel the ‘Joan Mondale lights-off treatment’ before I leave,” Whittlesey said.
Among other speakers at the service was Art Zegelbone, who served from 1993 to 1997 as cultural affairs officer at the American Embassy in Tokyo.
It was during those years that Walter Mondale served as ambassador to Japan upon his appointment by President Bill Clinton.
One of the great fears of cultural affairs officers is that the wife of the ambassador is going to be someone who thinks she knows a lot about art but doesn’t, Zegelbone said.
“Joan Mondale didn’t just think she knew about art. She was the real deal,” he said.
The ambassador’s wife found a pottery teacher in the town of Mashiko and “was soon up to her elbows in clay, working with pots,” Zegelbone said.
“This image was Cupid’s arrow to the heart of the Japanese,” he said. “Here was the wife of the American ambassador engaged seriously in an art form that the Japanese themselves take seriously.”
Mondale’s ashes sat on a table at the front of the church in an urn made by Stillwater-area potter Warren MacKenzie, whom she worked with regularly in his studio.
Jim Scheibel, former St. Paul mayor and a staff member to Vice President Mondale’s youth and employment task force, said he talked this past week to some of his Hamline University students about the former second lady.
“She’s a role model for anybody interested in public service, and particularly the women,” Scheibel said. “She combines her own thing with a real interest in public policy.”
Scheibel later worked with Joan Mondale when he was on the founding board of the Northern Clay Center.
The service closed with music from members of the Macalester College bagpipe band, which led congregants out of the church.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.