Walter and Joan Mondale -- an enduring love story

Democratic National Convention, 2004
Former Vice President Walter Mondale smiles with his wife Joan during the Democratic National Convention at the FleetCenter in Boston, Monday, July 26, 2004.
AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

The story of Walter Mondale's rise from Minnesota politics to the world stage and back again is detailed in his new autobiography, "The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics."

The part of his life that is less well known, and gets only a little attention in the book, is his half-century long romance with his wife, Joan.

They both say it was love at first sight.

The Mondales move a little more slowly now that they're in their 80s, and Joan seems a little frail. But she lights up when she describes how she fell in love with her husband. Joan recalled how her sister, Jane, set them up.

"Jane said, 'Would you like to go out with us?' and I said, 'Sure.' And she said, 'Whom would you like to be your escort?' and I said, 'Well, Fritz Mondale,'" Joan recalled. "But I never thought I'd meet him. I mean, that was a big deal."

She was Joan Adams at the time, and was working at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She had seen Mondale around, but didn't think she stood a chance with the handsome law student.

Walter Mondale wasn't sure Joan's father would approve of him.

San Francisco, 1984
Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale and his wife Joan smile broadly as they thank the delegates from the podium following Mondale's nomination in San Francisco on Wednesday, night, July 19, 1984.
AP Photo

"Dr. Adams was the chaplain at Macalester College. I had an iffy record of attendance at chapel, where they kept records. I think he knew about that," Walter Mondale said with a laugh.

Walter Mondale didn't have much money, and he had political ambitions. He said he was relieved when Joan's father didn't object to their courtship.

"I remember once we went down the St. Croix River -- that is when I fell in love with that. Joan and I canoed down there," Mondale recalled. "I was always going to political meetings, and she came along with me for a lot of those."

The couple married in 1955, after just seven dates. That was more than 50 years ago.

Another whirlwind was around the corner. A few years later, Walter Mondale became Minnesota's attorney general, then U.S. senator, and then vice president under Jimmy Carter.

Carter and Mondale
Former President Jimmy Carter, left, and former Vice President Walter Mondale walk together after helping build a Habitat for Humanity home in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"When Fritz was Carter's choice running for office, suddenly, phew! We were just lifted up and carried away from normalcy because we had to campaign," said Joan. "[Carter] chose Fritz, I think it was in August, and we started campaigning on Labor Day."

Even as Walter Mondale's political star was rising, the couple tried to give their three children, Eleanor, Ted and William, as normal a childhood as possible.

"I remember the rule that Joan repeated a lot, which was that no matter what politics cost, it should never cost you your family," said Walter. "The family has to come first. You have to work out a way of campaigning, and the other things that take so much of your time, in a way that strengthens the family."

That rule was sacred, and applied even on the campaign trail.

"If you're running for national office you need all the help you can get," said Joan. "And if the kids can help, that's great. Each one of them asked their father, 'May I campaign for you?'"

Joan Mondale
Joan Mondale spends time with her dog, Biscuit, at her home in Minneapolis, Minn. March 4, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The family's love was strong enough to withstand the pressures of political life in Washington, and the Mondales' attraction never dimmed. In a radio interview recorded during Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign, Joan described what it was like being married to Fritz.

"He has this wonderful little twinkle in his eye," Joan said, "and he always likes to turn these funny little things around and make self-deprecating jokes about himself, and he teases the kids and they are all crazy about him."

Today, the Mondales live in a loft overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis. The walls are decorated with political mementos, memoribilia and artwork. Joan has worked or taught in the arts for decades, earning her the nickname Joan of Art.

Joan Mondale was relaxing on the sofa on a recent afternoon with her big black and white dog, Biscuit, across her lap. The door opened and Walter walked in, arriving home from his law office. The dog's tail thumped against the sofa cushions.

He joined his wife in the living room, and they joked about the secret to their long marriage.

Minneapolis, 2009
Walter Mondale, followed by his wife Joan, waves as they arrive at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009, for President Barack Obama's health care address.
AP Photo/David Sherman

Just as in politics, Walter said, the secret to a successful marriage is compromise -- and sometimes it's subservience.

"Who is the boss? Well, it's not me," he joked.

"Oh, that is silly," Joan responded. "He won't give you a straight answer -- and neither will I."

When she isn't advocating on behalf of the visual and performing arts and arts funding, Joan Mondale throws pots at the Stillwater studio of her good friend, Minnesota artist Warren MacKenzie. She's been a ceramicist since her childhood.

Walter Mondale calls Joan his "rock," and credits her with influencing his ideas throughout his political career. He still practices law and teaches.

They both serve on the boards of various organizations, and they remain active in politics. Walter Mondale helped fundraise and get out the vote for Democratic candidates in this month's elections.

Joan said they are happy to be back in Minnesota, after years spent living and working around the world. The Mondales lived in Japan when Walter served as U.S. ambassador to that country under President Bill Clinton.

"Everybody is wonderful in Minnesota," Joan said. "We are so glad we are home."

One of their favorite things to do is walk across the Stone Arch Bridge. Even after decades in public life, Joan and Walter Mondale are still humbled when people recognize them on the street.

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