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Mondale gets tribute at William O'Brien State Park

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Three men unveil a wooden sign.
From left, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, former Vice President Walter Mondale and Gov. Tim Walz unveil a sign for the Walter F. Mondale Day Use Area during a dedication ceremony Tuesday at the William O'Brien State Park in Marine on Saint Croix, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Changing autumn leaves made a picturesque backdrop for a tribute to former Vice President Walter Mondale Tuesday at William O’Brien State Park along the St. Croix River.

Mondale, 91, sat beside a crackling fire as dignitaries sang his praises — from the governor to a national parks superintendent to state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen — as a portion of the park was renamed in honor of the former senator and ambassador.

"Early leaders like Vice President Mondale set us on the path of success that we see today," Strommen said.

Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler placed Mondale in esteemed company.

“Vice President Mondale ranks with our conservation heroes of the past — Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt — in the legacy he has left for all of us,” Winkler said.

As a U.S. senator and later as vice president, Mondale championed efforts to set aside vast reaches of land for conservation reasons.

Legislation Mondale wrote paved the way for extra protection of 13,413 miles of rivers across the nation, beginning with one in his own backyard, said St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Superintendent Julie Galonska.

“That 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was landmark legislation. There was nothing like it before it. And it preserved certain rivers like the St. Croix with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

The Walter F. Mondale Day Use Area is one of five facilities in the area that will be renamed in his honor.

It’s rare for a living figure in Minnesota to be so honored and took a special state law to do it.

To regular park users, the newly christened area is a place for a picnic or to launch a canoe. To Mondale, it’s much more personal.

It’s where he proposed to Joan Adams.

“We canoed down the river, and when it was over I asked her to marry me,” Mondale said. “She said, ‘yes’ and it only took 61 days from the canoe trip to the marriage. That’s pretty good. She and I loved that river.”

Mondale comes by less often since Joan died in 2014 after 58 years of marriage.

“One of the kind of tragedies when I lost my wife Joan, we used to like to come out here and watch the river,” he said. “But I found when I came out here without her, in about a day, it didn’t work anymore.”