She played many roles in her lifetime: wife, mother, the nation’s second lady and Walter Mondale’s inseparable partner on the national and international stages, where she moved with energy and grace for decades.
But Joan Adams Mondale’s favorite title through the years, she happily acknowledged, was Joan of Art. The former museum guide became an accomplished potter in her own right, leveraging her position as wife of an important leader to promote the arts locally and worldwide. She made her tastes and influence felt from famous galleries and performance stages to subway stations and light-rail stops.
“They didn’t call her Joan of Art for nothing,” said Martin Friedman, former director of the Walker Art Museum who is now retired in New York. “In her own quiet way, she did more for the arts than anybody and any administration. … She was unique, and artists loved her and museum directors admired her.”
Joan Mondale, 83, died Monday surrounded by her husband, sons and family members at Mount Olivet Careview Home in Minneapolis, where she had been receiving hospice care since moving there Friday from her downtown Minneapolis home.
In 2010, she resigned her last official position — choosing subjects for stamps as a member of the Postmaster General’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee — and had been in declining health the last few years.
In a statement late Monday afternoon, the former vice president and U.S. ambassador to Japan said that his family was “grateful for the expressions of love and support we have received. Joan was greatly loved by many. We will miss her dearly.”
At her side were her husband and sons Ted, CEO of the Minnesota Sports Facility Authority, and William, both of the Twin Cities. Her daughter, Eleanor, died in 2011 after a long battle with brain cancer.
Services will be held Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. A time has not yet been set.
Not long after news of Joan Mondale’s death became known, political leaders far and near weighed in with condolences and praise.
In a statement released Monday night by the White House, President Obama said she “passionately advocated for the role of art in the life of our nation and the promotion of understanding worldwide.”
Gov. Mark Dayton said that she “stood right by her husband’s side … [and] made her own mark on life in our state and our country. … She also found time to raise three children, who became very accomplished adults.”
Mad about art
Already an arts advocate and serious student of pottery when she moved into the vice presidential mansion, Joan Mondale made her mark as a leader in the national crafts revival of the 1970s. She turned her official Washington, D.C., residence into a showcase for contemporary art, promoted American craft glassware and pottery and chaired the federal arts and humanities council.
A few years after Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential bid failed, the Mondales returned to Minnesota. Almost immediately, she jumped back into the Twin Cities art scene, speaking at festivals, serving on boards and lobbying for public funding for the arts.
In 1990, she helped launch the Northern Clay Center for pottery, a passion she maintained through her final days.
“She was just mad for talking about art,” said Warren MacKenzie, her mentor and an internationally known potter from Stillwater whose work Mondale championed in the U.S. and Japan. “She couldn’t get enough of it. As an artist, you can’t have enough people like her.”
Walter Mondale was named ambassador to Japan in 1993, a post he accepted in part because of his wife’s interest in Japanese pottery and art. She brought with her boxes of her own pots and mugs as gifts, traveled the country promoting public art and supervised an extensive renovation of the historic ambassador’s residence. When it was finished, she threw a party for the Japanese construction workers and their spouses.
“I especially liked shaking their hands,” she said. “Their hands were rough from the work they do. It felt good to shake hands that do work.”
By the time the Mondales left Japan in 1996, Joan Mondale was better known in some quarters of the country than her husband.
“She gave us the sense that the U.S. was not just a country of products and trade deals,” said Hatsuhisa Takashima, a Japanese broadcast executive.
The mugs she threw and fired, marked with her “JM,” probably don’t have a lot of monetary value because she was so generous in giving them away, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Monday.
But they hold memories of “someone who could be just as at ease on a farm in Elmore, Minnesota, and at an ambassador’s reception in Japan as at a potter’s kiln in the Warehouse District,” Klobuchar said. “She transcended parts of our state and our world.”
Road to Washington
Joan Adams was born in 1930 in Eugene, Ore., to the Rev. John Maxwell Adams, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Eleanor. The family moved to Pennsylvania and Ohio before her father became chaplain at Macalester College in St. Paul, where she graduated from Summit School and later Macalester with a concentration in history, art and French.
After graduation, she worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and then as a docent and lecturer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
On a blind date, she met a budding Minneapolis lawyer named Walter Mondale; they married in 1955. After serving as Minnesota attorney general, he was named to the U.S. Senate seat vacated in 1964 after Hubert Humphrey was elected vice president, and the family moved to Washington, D.C.
In 1976, Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter picked the Minnesota senator to be his running mate in his successful bid for the White House. President Carter appointed Joan Mondale chairwoman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, giving her a national platform to promote public and private support for the arts.
Arvonne Fraser, the wife of former congressman and Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, knew her as “full of energy and ideas. … It’s never easy to be the wife of a public official and try to have a life of your own, but she succeeded in this and I think it makes her a role model for a lot of other women in similar situations.”
At the same time, Fraser said, “she was always so good with her kids and so protective, so concerned about them and their lives.” She said she believed Mondale “declined a great deal” after her daughter Eleanor’s cancer and death.
In a 1992 book review for the Star Tribune, Joan Mondale wrote about the challenges of being a candidate’s wife and the importance of remaining her own person.
“A wife must try to help her husband deal with crises, all the while being true to herself,’’ she wrote. “And she must be focused and centered, with a clear idea of her own self-worth, to handle the thrills as well as the disappointments of running for office.”