Joan Mondale, wife of former VP Walter, dies at 83

Joan Mondale
The late Joan Mondale with her dog, Biscuit, at home in Minneapolis in 2010.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News File

Joan Mondale, wife of former Vice President Walter Mondale and a tireless advocate for the arts, died Monday while in hospice care at the age of 83 with her husband and their sons Ted and William at her side, according to a statement sent out by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.

Her death elicited condolences from as far away as the White House and as close to home as a pottery center in south Minneapolis.

"We are grateful for the expressions of love and support we have received. Joan was greatly loved by many," Walter Mondale said in a statement. "We will miss her dearly."

From 2010: Walter and Joan Mondale -- an enduring love story

Joan Mondale accompanied her husband on the campaign trail during his bids for public office, including his run for the presidency in 1984, served alongside him in Congress and during Mondale's ambassadorship in Japan, but perhaps her most lasting impact will be in the art world. She was a longtime and tireless advocate for the arts, locally and internationally.


State and national Democratic politicians sent statements of support to Joan Mondale's family following her death. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama called Joan Mondale a "devoted partner in public service, from Minnesota to Washington."

San Francisco, 1984
Then-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

Both U.S. senators for Minnesota also praised her, with U.S. Sen. Al Franken saying that, "Vice President Mondale could not have had a partner with a warmer heart, keener mind, or a more generous soul."

Born Joan Adams in 1930, she met Walter Mondale on a blind date and married him in 1955. In a 2010 interview, Walter Mondale said he was relieved that Joan's father didn't object to their relationship.

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

Walter Mondale served in the U.S. Senate and a dozen years later was elected vice president alongside Jimmy Carter. He lost a presidential bid against Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Arvonne Fraser, a friend of the Mondales and wife of former congressman and Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser, said Joan Mondale gracefully fulfilled her responsibilities as the wife of a prominent politician in that era while also maintaining her own personal opinions and creative outlets.

"I remember one day in my husband's office, when we were all standing around, she expressed her view on a current issue that probably was not the most politic thing to do," Fraser said. "She did it with great verve and sense, but she knew she was at a private gathering, so she knew her position and carried it off beautifully."


Joan Mondale's love of art came long before her immersion into politics. While attending Macalester College, she worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts teaching children's classes and cataloging prints. She saw supporting the arts as her mission.

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

"Often artists and government officials live in their own separate worlds, and I must confess that I did enjoy stirring things up a bit," Joan Mondale said in a 1986 speech, remembering an event she hosted that resulted in a spirited conversation between Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Indian artist R.C. Gorman.

"Some people still wonder why the government should subsidize the arts," she said in a speech in 1986. "They might just well as ask why the government should subsidize our highways."

While her husband was serving as vice president, Joan Mondale was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter as the administration's "ombudsman for arts." In a statement sent out Monday night, Carter said Joan Mondale "was exemplary in using the opportunities public service provided to advance the arts and other issues important to her and many Americans."

Mondale enthusiastically served on a number of arts organizations locally and nationally throughout the years, including the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis. Former director Emily Galusha said Joan Mondale often pitched in on the "nitty-gritty" planning of events or fundraising at the center.

"She was so enthusiastic and it was like she was giving other people a chance to participate in her enthusiasm," Galusha said. "That's pretty infectious when people approach it that way."

Galusha said Joan Mondale was known for her graciousness with visiting artists.

"She would send notes, just a short note, either to me or to an artist, and that kind of thing makes the work of what is basically an institution feel very humane," Galusha said. "That was a real difference that she made -- to keep that human touch."

Warren MacKenzie -- a master potter from Stillwater - said Mondale was no dilettante. MacKenzie said she spent countless hours alongside him in his studio honing her craft as a potter.

"We made pots together and she stayed for lunch and on into the afternoon," MacKenzie said. "She wasn't a professional, she didn't make pots to make money, she gave them all away as gifts, but she just loved to make pots."

In a 1986 speech, Joan Mondale, spoke about why it was important for her to make art.

"I find a great deal of satisfaction in making a tangible object. It's like a part of me," she said. "And so when I give a pot as a gift, it's like giving something of myself."

Even though she was ill, MacKenzie said Joan Mondale continued to visit the Stillwater studio up until just a few weeks ago.

A service for Joan Mondale will be held Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis.

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