‘He led the way’: Former VP Walter Mondale honored at U of M memorial service

Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, photographed at his Mill District condo on April 30, 2019 in Minneapolis. (Getty Images)

The world, the nation and Minnesota are honoring a political leader who set the bar and paved the way.

Walter Mondale, nicknamed "Fritz," was a former vice president, a mentor and a friend to President Joe Biden for five decades.

"Fritz was a giant in American political history," the president said Sunday.

Mondale died at age 93 in April 2021, but his memorial ceremony was delayed for a year until people could gather together more safely.

On Sunday, Mondale was honored at an intimate, invite-only ceremony at the University of Minnesota campus, where Mondale graduated, went to law school and later taught. The president, both U.S. senators, Gov. Tim Walz and several other political leaders spoke at the service.

"He took risks. He led the way. He set a high bar and time after time, he kept passing it and raising it," said U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

President Biden said after former President Barack Obama asked Biden to be his running mate, Mondale was Biden’s first phone call. He said Mondale "reflected the best qualities of Minnesota."

"He was loved by the American people because he reflected the goodness of the American people, especially the people of Minnesota," President Biden said. "Every senator wears on his or her sleeve the state they serve, but the love Fritz had for the people of Minnesota ran deeper than that. He loved you all, and you loved him back."

The former vice president leaves a lasting impact here in Minnesota and throughout the entire nation. The speakers at the memorial emphasized that his accomplishments go far beyond the political titles he held because he influenced a future generation of leaders.

"He changed this state, he changed this nation and he changed this world all for the better. Fritz was a national figure, but at heart -- and everyone in this room knows -- he was always just a boy from southern Minnesota," Walz said.

The Minnesota native was perhaps best known for serving as vice president under President Jimmy Carter and becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984. But one of his other great roles was that of mentor.

"Vice President Mondale was the first to encourage me to run for the U.S. Senate. He was the first to teach the pundits in Washington how to say my last name," Klobuchar said.

Mondale was also beloved by his family. His sons put off his memorial ceremony for a year to make sure their father would be honored properly.

"Dad always took everything that life could throw at him to make the future better for everyone," said his son, William Mondale.

"We believe to honor our father, by doing so is to never stop -- to never stop remembering his legacy of profoundly changing America for the better and to never stop doing our part every day to preserve our democracy and perfect our union," said his son, Ted Mondale.

Presidential historian Jon Meacham spoke about Mondale’s many accomplishments over his long and illustrious political career. He praised the former vice president for standing by his principles.

"There are children in America today who will not go hungry because of Fritz Mondale. There are Black people in America today who can vote and work and live more freely and fairly because of Fritz Mondale. There are women in America today who see no limit to their dreams because of Fritz Mondale," Meacham said. "He never stopped believing in this country. He never stopped fighting for his people, and thankfully he never stopped defending democracy. He never stopped, and nor in his memory, must we," Meacham said. 



Sunday's speakers at the memorial service included:   

  • President Joe Biden
  • U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar
  • U.S. Senator Tina Smith
  • Minnesota Governor Tim Walz
  • University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel
  • Civil rights activist Josie Johnson
  • Presidential historian Jon Meacham
  • Walter Mondale’s sons, Ted Mondale and William Mondale

Mondale's last message

Former Mondale staff members received an email he crafted for them in the event of his death, according to the Minnesota DFL. In it he praised their work, saying, "Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side."

To close, he said, "I always knew it would be okay if I arrived some place and was greeted by one of you!" 

He signed the letter with his nickname, "Fritz."

From Ceylon to the White House

Mondale was born in Ceylon, Minnesota in January 1928. His parents were Norwegian immigrants. His father was a Methodist minister and his mother was a piano teacher. A high school football star in high school, Mondale attended Macalaster College in St. Paul for two years before transferring to the University of Minnesota. 

He served in the U.S. Army and enrolled at the University of Minnesota's law school on the G.I. Bill upon his return. He served as a law clerk on the Minnesota Supreme Court after law school before practicing law in Minneapolis. 

He was active in DFL politics and saw Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman as his mentors. He eventually filled Humphrey's Senate seat after being appointed as Minnesota Attorney General. He won re-election to his Senate seat in 1966 and 1972. 

Among his major accomplishments in the Senate was his championing of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex. He also played a large role in passing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which helped preserve the St. Croix River. 

He was elected Vice President in 1976 and was famously the first Vice President to have a White House office. The pair lost re-election in 1980. 

Mondale was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President four years later and chose the first woman to run for either President or Vice President, Geraldine Ferraro. They were defeated by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, at which time Mondale returned to private life. 

He served as Ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996.

Remembering a 'mentor'

Common among statements that poured in after Mondale's death was announced is the fact that many saw him as a mentor. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Mondale was a "true public servant," and "my friend and mentor." 

"He set a high bar for himself and kept passing it and raising it, passing it and raising it," she said. 

Klobuchar said she interned in Mondale's office as a college student, which she called "life-changing." She said she left that job thinking she could see herself run for office someday. 

"Walter Mondale taught me that leadership isn’t all about giving soaring speeches and punchy sound bites – but actually getting things done for people. He always saw his responsibility as an elected leader as bigger than the immediate challenge at any given moment. His broader mission was helping to prepare a new generation of leaders for the next big decision that needed to be made," Klobuchar added in her statement. 

President Jimmy Carter, in a statement released through the Carter Center, said Mondale was the "best vice president in our country's history." He credited Mondale with transforming the vice presidency during his time at the helm.  "Fritz Mondale provided us all with a model for public service and private behavior," Carter said. 

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden released a statement saying they had the chance to talk to Mondale over the weekend to reflect on "the years of friendship we shared, and how much we learned from and leaned on each other." Biden said Mondale was one of the first people to greet him when he arrived in the Senate and said "Fritz" was his first call when Obama asked him to be vice president. 

President Barack Obama also applauded the way Mondale changed the role of the vice president, saying it paved the way for Joe Biden's role and, eventually, Kamala Harris'.

Sen. Tina Smith tweeted that she loved the former Senator. "Mondale was a giant not only because of the positions he held…but because of the work that he did." She called him a "true friend," and described him as "lively", "incisive" and "hysterically funny."

Gov. Tim Walz tweeted a statement saying he and his wife were mourning the loss of "a dear friend and mentor." 

"We will miss terribly Fritz Mondale, the steady voice and vision setter for ideas great and small, people powerful and powerless, and justice waiting to be revealed," Walz added.