Joan Mondale, political wife and culture maven, dies at 83

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Walter F. Mondale graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He attended Macalester but graduated from the University of Minnesota.


Joan Mondale, seen here in her Minneapolis home in 2002, burnished a reputation as "Joan of Art" for her passionate advocacy for the arts. (Brian Peterson/Associated Press)

Joan Mondale, who became known as “Joan of Art” for her promotion of the fine arts during the political career of her husband, the former U.S. senator, vice president and presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale, died Feb. 3 at 83.

Her family announced the death but did not disclose the cause or where she died.

Mrs. Mondale, a self-described “traditional political wife,” was widely recognized as one of the most prominent political spouses of her era. She logged tens of thousands of miles campaigning for her husband, whom she (like many others) called Fritz.

A Minnesota Democrat, he served as his state’s attorney general before being appointed in 1964 to the Senate, where he remained until being elected vice president in 1976 on Jimmy Carter’s winning ticket.

In 1984, Walter Mondale challenged Ronald Reagan, the Republican president, and lost in a landslide.

In Washington and around the country, Mrs. Mondale became known as a tireless advocate for the cultivation of the arts. During her tenure as “second lady” of the United States, President Carter named her honorary chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.

She traveled around the country attending museum exhibitions, dedicating new works of art and otherwise directing national attention on artists, noted or undiscovered, whom she admired. For her own part, she was an accomplished ceramicist.

She and her husband were the first couple to inhabit the vice president’s residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory, and Mrs. Mondale turned the home into a showcase for American art.

“She is generous and straightforward,” the American painter Frank Stella once told The Washington Post. “She relates well to artists and makes everybody feel good. She has the ability to be interested wherever she is, which is no small gift. Most of us think: If it is in Des Moines, it can’t be any good. She’s different. She has this naive freshness. There is no doubt she helped artists.”

Mrs. Mondale also used her prominence to push for equal pay for men and women and for the Equal Rights Amendment. When her husband in 1984 named Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y) his vice presidential running mate — making her the first woman to become a major-party nominee on a presidential ticket — Mrs. Mondale was resolutely supportive.

“She doesn’t mince words, and I like that a lot,” Mrs. Mondale said.

Joan Adams was born on Aug. 8, 1930, in Eugene, Ore., the eldest of three daughters of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. She credited her mother, who was skilled in handcrafts, with introducing her to the arts.

Joan spent much of her childhood in Ohio and Pennsylvania before moving during high school to St. Paul., Minn., where her father became a chaplain at Macalester College. She received a bachelor’s degree in history there in 1952. (Walter Mondale also attended Macalester, but she said that he did not notice her until several years later.)

In her youth, she worked as an assistant librarian at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She met Mondale, the son of a Methodist minister, in 1955. After dating for a reported 53 days, they were engaged to be married. The wedding took place that December.

“Being a minister’s child is similar to being a public official’s child,” Mrs. Mondale once told the New York Times. “What you say and do will be remembered. You have to be careful.”

As her husband’s political interests grew, Mrs. Mondale found herself, she remarked, with two choices. “I could sit at home and weep,” she said, according to the Current Biography reference guide, “or I could become active in our ward club and have plenty to do on those long nights.” She chose the latter.

The family moved to Washington after Walter Mondale was appointed to the Senate seat previously held by Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey, who had been elected vice president under President Lyndon B. Johnson. While raising her three children in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of the District, Mrs. Mondale was a regular volunteer at the National Gallery of Art and collaborated with other cultural groups in Washington.

In 1972, she published a book, “Politics in Art.” Her other publications included “The Mondale Family Cookbook” (1984) and “Letters From Japan” (1998), a compilation of dispatches she wrote for a Minneapolis newspaper during her husband’s ambassadorship to Japan from 1993 to 1996. Mrs. Mondale frequently presented Japanese dignitaries with gifts of her own pottery.

Besides her husband, survivors include two sons, Ted and William. Her daughter, Eleanor, died of brain cancer in 2011.

Mrs. Mondale once reflected on her role in the arts society.

“I felt what I could do was encourage audiences, appreciate audiences,” she told The Post. “I was an appreciator. I was a consumer. I’m not a critic. I’m not an art historian. But what I could do was sort of say thank you to the arts community.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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