Former Vice President Walter Mondale fondly recalled newspaper publisher and philanthropist John Cowles Jr., who died on Saturday, as a relentlessly curious man who "really helped change the attractiveness of Minnesota to the world."
Mondale discussed the legacy of his longtime friend with MPR's Cathy Wurzer Monday. Cowles, who published the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper in the 1980s and grew to become a key arts patron in the Twin Cities, died of lung cancer at the age of 82.
"I've called him a giant," Mondale said. "I don't think he'd like that description, but when you look at the positive things that happened in the Twin Cities over the last 45 years, he's been involved in most of it."
Cowles is credited with convincing Tyrone Guthrie that Minneapolis was the best place to locate his regional theater. He also played a major role in getting the Metrodome built in downtown Minneapolis.
An edited transcript of the Mondale interview is below.
Cathy Wurzer: I think John Cowles meant an awful lot to the Twin Cities. You ask almost anybody and they'll say that. Can you talk a little bit about that specifically?
Walter Mondale: Yes. I've called him a giant. I don't think he'd like that description, but when you look at the positive things that happened in the Twin Cities over the last 45 years, he's been involved in most of it. And the cultural scene, it's phenomenal, whether it's the Walker Center or the sculpture garden or the Guthrie Theater or the new Cowles Dance Center on Hennepin Avenue or the Cowles Auditorium at the Humphrey Institute, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of things, the sculpture garden up on the St. Croix.
John and (his wife) Sage have been at the center and really helped change the attractiveness of Minnesota to the world, I would say. And before that, in journalism, Cowles and his family, and I knew his dad, came up to Minnesota and they upgraded the Minneapolis paper and made it an international and nationally recognized newspaper and helped educate all of us to the world with which we would be challenged.
And although he wasn't directly involved in politics, he was always on the civil side. He also wanted progress. He always wanted rational, honest debates. He wanted us to learn and grow and improve. And he did that for all of his adult life here. And he and Sage are a great team. They did it together, and we owe him a huge, big thank you.
Wurzer: What do you think motivated him in his various roles, as a journalist, as a philanthropist, as an artist?
Mondale: Well, I think he was a very intelligent, curious man. And he was always trying to learn and trying to improve the community. His father was the same way, always curious, seeking change, wanting to do better, sort of restless, I would say, in trying to keep cutting through the junk and getting to the real stuff. And I think he was raised that way. I think he and Sage felt the same way about that, and that's the way they lived their lives.
Wurzer: I thought he had a really interesting second act after leaving the newspaper. He was into agricultural economics, aerobics, arts. What kind of philosophy did he have for that second act?
Mondale: I would say he was a free thinker and he wanted to do different things. And wherever his curiosity took him, there he went. He and Sage went together. And it was not at all the typical post-corporate life of a big shot corporate leader at all. It was very unique and fascinating all the way through, I'd say.
Wurzer: What did you make of his love of the arts? Specifically I remember Wheelock Whitney talking about the performance choreographed by Bill T. Jones when Mr. Cowles danced nude. It was surprising to Wheelock Whitney.
Mondale: I was hoping you weren't going to ask about that. (Laughs)
Wurzer: Well, I have to, I have to. It's kind of interesting.
Mondale:: Well, I don't know. You know it's just something he was going to do and he did it. He was very much his own person, and this is what he was going to do and he did it.
Wurzer: What do you remember most about the time you spent with Mr. Cowles?
Mondale: His civility. He was always thinking, always trying to find a better way, and very conscious of the community, keeping us together, and seeing the future and trying to meet it, and the other thing I remember, he was always true as a bell. He was the same John Cowles every time you met him, the honest, decent guy, and I must say the two of them, John and Sage, because they're a great team, were always solid and positive and always thinking. They're really great people.
Wurzer: He always struck me as a gracious but serious gentleman. Did he have a mischievous streak at all?
Mondale: Let's see. He supported (former governor Jesse) Ventura one year. Yes, he had a mischievous streak.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)