Like every other high-level Minnesota politician, Walter Mondale visited Duluth quite often during his active years, almost always calling on the state’s third-largest newspaper here in Duluth.
In my various newsroom roles at the News Tribune (and Duluth Herald before it was discontinued), I met him many times, causing me to reflect on those times this week when the former vice president, past Minnesota U.S. senator, ex-Minnesota attorney general, and affable human being died at age 93.
I was, in a sense, present at the creation of Mondale as a nationally significant political leader when he was appointed in 1964 to the U.S. Senate. Hubert Humphrey had resigned from the Senate when he accepted President Lyndon Johnson’s offer to be his running mate in the 1964 election. It was up to then-Minnesota Gov. Karl Rolvaag to appoint a successor to Humphrey, and he chose Mondale, Minnesota’s attorney general.
Humphrey, Rolvaag, Mondale, and several others, such as Eugene McCarthy and Orville Freeman, were the stalwarts of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party at the time.
Upon being appointed, Mondale, as was often the case for politicians, made a quick flying trip around the state, visiting Duluth and other major cities. Rolvaag accompanied him. If memory serves, it occurred on a Saturday, and I was working weekends as a reporter early in my career.
Mondale’s retinue set up a media conference in a room off the ballroom in Hotel Duluth (now Greysolon Plaza), and we were all there: the television reporters and photographers, maybe a radio journalist or two, and me. It was the first time I’d met Mondale.
The future senator was seated behind a desk, waiting as the TV crews set up their lights and got their bulky equipment situated. It was a complicated process in those pre-digital days. Finally they were ready, the bright lights went on, and suddenly Mondale called a halt and waved to an aide to dash over and put makeup on his face, in those days needed for appearing healthy on TV. It’s my most vivid memory from that encounter.
All I carried was a pen and reporter’s notebook, and after talking briefly to Mondale I stood back to let the broadcasters do their thing. Glancing around the room, I noted Gov. Rolvaag standing alone in a corner taking it all in, being ignored. Press all around, he the state’s governor in their midst, and no one was paying attention to him; Mondale was the star of the day. I recall feeling kind of sorry for Rolvaag, so I went over to him, notebook in hand, and interviewed him. I don’t recall if Rolvaag made my story.
But as we all are reminded this week, Mondale went on to become a distinguished senator, vice president in the Jimmy Carter administration, unsuccessful candidate for president in 1984, ambassador to Japan in the 1990s, and revered pundit in recent years.
Mondale visited Duluth quite often as vice president, and this anecdote involving him was told to me. I did not witness it. Mondale was a close friend of the late Duluth attorney Harry Munger, a longtime DFL activist and younger brother of the legendary Willard Munger, “Mr. Environment” in the Minnesota Legislature for decades. Mondale and Harry Munger were fishing partners.
Harry Munger told me this story:
Mondale was visiting Munger’s Piedmont Heights home one bitterly cold winter night during his vice presidency. Several other guests were invited, all arriving by car. Of course, as vice president, Mondale had Secret Service protection.
As the guests and Mondale gathered inside, Secret Service agents were outside on alert when they were startled by the sudden starting of vehicles and rumbling of engines in cars parked near them. They were unaware of those once-popular devices that would automatically warm up unoccupied cars in cold weather. The agents thought something was amiss, until it was explained that the cars started automatically and that they were not under attack.
Welcome to northern Minnesota in winter, Secret Service.
Finally, I had a gratifying remote contact with Mondale at the time of my retirement from active employment at the News Tribune in 2005. A colleague quietly contacted Mondale and asked him to record a message of good wishes upon my retirement. I didn’t know the former vice president THAT well, but Mondale took the time to do it, and the recording was played at a retirement gathering.
I doubt Mondale recalled that I was the young Duluth journalist who reported on his appointment to the Senate 41 years earlier, but I’ll never forget that he was kind enough to wish me well as I moved on with my life.
Jim Heffernan is a former News Tribune news and opinion writer who still writes a column for the paper. He can be reached at email@example.com and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.