Joan Mondale’s own words, uttered during the high Minnesota political drama of late October 2002, seem a fitting summation of her life, which ended Monday at age 83.
Mondale was asked whether she or husband Walter had any hesitation about coming out of retirement to run for a U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the airplane-crash death of Sen. Paul Wellstone.
“Oh, heavens, no,” she said. “We’re public servants. That’s what we do.”
That self-analysis is apt. Joan Mondale’s name never appeared on a ballot. But she was indeed a public servant, participating with her husband in myriad ways as he served as Minnesota’s attorney general and U.S. senator and the nation’s vice president and ambassador to Japan.
The Mondale marriage was a partnership from which each drew support and strength that fueled their public work and enlarged their impact. Growing up in a Presbyterian clergy manse, Joan inherited a zeal for service that was reinforced by her marriage in 1955 to an up-and-coming law student, DFL activist and Methodist preacher’s son from Elmore, Minn.
As his political career unfolded, Joan got involved. She proved to be a vigorous campaigner, an effective public speaker, an engaging conversationalist and a ready sounding board.
She was an artist, too, specializing in ceramics. But through most of her life, Joan Mondale used her interest in art as a tool with which to enhance her work for Minnesotans and Americans. She wrote a book, “Politics in Art,” about how political commentary is reflected in artworks. She chaired the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. She used art to forge connections with the Japanese people while serving as the U.S. ambassador’s wife.
The Mondales were the first family to move into Number One Observatory Circle in Washington after it became the vice president’s official residence. Joan gave the mansion her personal stamp, making it a showcase of American art and a welcoming venue for official gatherings.
She served as the nation’s Second Lady at a time of transition in the public’s expectations for political spouses. She chose a role neither fully independent nor fully traditional. Instead, she tailored her personal interests to fulfill a shared mission of public service. Her sincerity shone through her work, winning her the nation’s admiration and an abiding place in Minnesota hearts.