Former Vice President Walter Mondale's death last week was an occasion for generations of DFL politicians to reminisce on social media and in interviews about the example set by his progressive principles and the personal mentorship or guidance he offered to so many.
The passing of Minnesota's last politician to serve in national elected office inspired outpourings of respect and affection from Republicans, too — maybe none more so than state Rep. Bjorn Olson, a freshman Republican with a uniquely personal connection to Mondale.
"He grew up in the house that I'm sitting in right now," Olson said in a phone interview Thursday. Olson said he left St. Paul early last week but was participating in the legislative session remotely from Elmore, the small southern Minnesota town where Mondale spent much of his youth.
Olson, with his wife and two kids, rents the house on Mondale Street — built in the late 19th century and with a plaque out front that reads "Mondale House" — from Olson's grandparents. A 30-year-old middle school history teacher, farmer and U.S. Army Reserve captain, Olson served two terms as mayor of this Faribault County town of 663 people before his election to the Legislature last year. The town sits on the Iowa border.
Mondale was born in nearby Ceylon in 1928. Mondale's father was a Methodist minister, and the family moved to Elmore, where a young Fritz Mondale went on to graduate from high school, a star in both academics and athletics.
"There's still so many people in this area who are proud to tell you that Walter was a friend of theirs in school, that they played sports against him, that they have an old photo of Fritz somewhere," Olson said.
Elmore's population peaked at just over 1,000 around 1960, a little more than a decade after Mondale moved on to Macalester College and the University of Minnesota, DFL activism, service in the Korean War, law school and private practice, and then a succession of political jobs: Minnesota attorney general, U.S. senator, vice president, Democratic presidential nominee, ambassador to Japan.
In 2013, Elmore celebrated its 150th anniversary. "He knocked on the door of the house," Olson said. "And I answered and he said, 'I grew up here. Do you mind if I come in and remember with you?' I said absolutely, Mr. Vice President, you may certainly come into this house."
Olson said his ancestors arrived in southern Minnesota from Norway and Sweden in the middle of the 19th century. That's around the time Mondale's great-grandparents arrived in the area from Norway. Olson's family has farmed near Elmore ever since, he said; he raises soybeans on about 200 acres of land owned by his grandfather.
Despite their political differences, Olson said Mondale is an inspiration for his own political career.
"His entire life was about service to others and what he could do to better the lives of other people, and that's what a Minnesotan does," Olson said. "We can take pride in knowing that man was an excellent example of who we are."