Ross Litman was on a late-season campaign swing across the Iron Range in 2002 when he bumped into Walter Mondale, who was delivering a stump speech of his own at the Iron Man monument in Chisholm.
Litman was a first-time candidate who had earlier received the former vice president's endorsement in his successful bid for St. Louis County sheriff. Mondale, meanwhile, was courting voters as a last-minute replacement for U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash just 12 days before the general election.
The two men had first met some three decades earlier, but the chance encounter that day in Chisholm, under the most unlikely of circumstances, rekindled a close family friendship that continued right up until Mondale's death Monday at age 93.
"He had a huge impact on me," Litman said Tuesday. "I always tried to emulate the way he conducted himself. How could you possibly go wrong?"
Mondale made countless public appearances in Duluth and on the Iron Range and forged friendships with local political and legal leaders in his more than 60 years as a public figure at the state and national levels.
He campaigned in the region as a candidate for both president and vice president, stumped for candidates up and down the ticket and enjoyed spending time outdoors, away from the public eye, with his close friends.
"We've got Interstate 94 that goes between Minneapolis and St. Paul,'' Mondale said in a 1997 interview with the News Tribune. "Every time I come to the I-35 exit, the car starts to turn north."
For nearly 20 consecutive years, up until the COVID-19 pandemic, Mondale made an annual fishing expedition to the Litman family camp in Ignance, Ontario. Ross Litman, whose late father was a judge in St. Louis County, said he first met Mondale when he was a U.S. senator in the 1970s — a connection formed through the Munger family, which included longtime state Rep. Willard Munger, attorney Harry Munger and his son, future Judge Mark Munger.
"He always tried to fit in and be one of the group, but he clearly wasn't," Litman said. "Where you'd really notice it was traveling with him. So many people were attracted to him and wanted a photo op. It was fun to watch. He was always so gracious; he always took the time to carry on a short conversation and afford a photo."
Litman said Mondale made at least one trip to the camp during his vice presidency from 1977-81, bringing a cadre of Secret Service personnel to the secluded site. But their time together was infrequent during the height of Mondale's political career, resuming after his short Senate bid in 2002.
Mondale, a native of southwestern Minnesota, had been coming to the Northland since at least the 1960, when he was first appointed Minnesota attorney general. He took part in a Hibbing rally for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign that year, later telling a reporter: "That's where I really got a good look at the Range."
As the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984 — an election that saw incumbent Ronald Reagan win 49 states — one of Mondale's final rallies was held at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
"I think the reason I carried Minnesota was because of that,'' Mondale joked in a later interview with the News Tribune.
Mondale and his wife, Joan, were bestowed with honorary degrees from UMD in 1997, taking part in the commencement ceremony at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, and a section of U.S. Highway 53 through Duluth was dedicated as Walter F. Mondale Drive in 2008. He was on hand in 2007, when Duluth's federal building was renamed for his longtime friend, Judge Gerald Heaney, a 40-year member of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and an activist who helped form the Democratic-Farmer-Laborer Party.
Over the years, Mondale made frequent stops on behalf of candidates including Hillary Clinton, Mark Dayton and Rick Nolan, and occasionally weighed in on Northland issues, writing to the News Tribune to oppose ranked-choice voting in Duluth in 2015 and copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 2018.
Mondale's final public appearance in the area came in January 2019, when he attended several ceremonial events at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. Litman, anticipating that his fifth term as sheriff would be his last, had asked Mondale on the previous year's fishing trip to administer the oath of office.
Mondale agreed. Unfortunately, it turned out the former vice president, ambassador to Japan, U.S. senator and state attorney general lacked the authority under state law, so he had to participate from the sidelines.
Litman, who described Mondale as a father figure, said his friend remained sharp well into his 90s before his health started to deteriorate in recent months. With Mondale's death imminent, Litman and another fishing buddy, Sam Perrella, traveled to the Twin Cities to visit him in his final days.
"He went out on his own terms and he had a chance to say everything he wanted to before he passed," Litman said. "He was just a great example of a leader, and a great American."