I’m a lucky man. At an early age, I was steeped in the traditions of Minnesota’s political landscape because my uncle, Rep. Willard Munger, was the last Farmer Laborite. My father, Harry Munger, a longtime attorney, activist, and fundraiser in the DFL, also had ties to Minnesota’s progressive politics. One would assume that such family connections would lead to my interactions with men like Humphrey and Lord and McCarthy and Spannus and Blatnik and Oberstar. That’s true.
But it was the happenstance of honeymooning in Ontario that led me to become a fishing partner, friend, and mentee of Walter F. Mondale, who died this past week. He was 93.
I was in law school when I married. I was working full time at the Dorsey law firm in Minneapolis and attending William Mitchell College of Law at night while René attended UMD and worked at the Ward’s store back in Duluth. We had no money for a honeymoon. Knowing this, Dad suggested René and I accept an invitation from Judge Jack Litman and his wife Helen to spend a week in the Ontario bush at the Litman Camp on Elsie Lake with the Litman, Munger, and Mondale families. With no prospects of privacy — Fritz was the vice president at the time, which meant lots of security — and being young, in love, and penniless, we agreed.
The week we spent at Elsie was a wonderful prelude to a relationship with Mr. Mondale that would blossom over time.
When our first son, Matt, was born, René and I decided to have him baptized at our family’s little Episcopal church in West Duluth. We were unaware, when we set the date, that Mondale would be in town on a campaign swing (Fritz and President Jimmy Carter were seeking reelection) and for some well-deserved R and R. Ever the son of a preacher, Fritz insisted on attending Matt’s christening, an event which saw our tiny mission church packed to the ceiling with folks wanting a glimpse of their vice president. Later that year, René and I were invited to follow election returns in the Mondale’s private suite at the Radisson Hotel in St. Paul, watching in sadness as a California film star won the Oval Office.
When my first novel, “The Legacy,” was ready for publication, I asked Fritz, who had left politics, if he’d supply a blurb for the book’s jacket. He said “sure,” an act of compassion toward an aspiring author that helped the book immensely. Years later, Dad posited the notion that I accompany him, the Litmans, the Perrellas, Fritz, Doc Donley, George Millard, and Bruce Meyer on their annual fishing trip to the Litman Camp. Judge Litman and Helen were both gone, leaving sons Ross and Jay to carry on the tradition of teaching a Norwegian ex-politician how to catch walleye. I was enlisted to serve as chauffeur for the elder statesmen of the camp — Dad, Fritz, George, and Bruce — and ferry them from Duluth to Ignace, Ontario, where we’d catch a float plane to paradise.
During those drives and over time spent with Fritz in fishing boats, around the campfire, in the bunkhouse, and during meals, I came to understand the true meaning of greatness. Walter Mondale was erudite, quick-witted, kind, and a constant prober of opinions concerning both the mundane and the complex. I learned, after a staid Norwegian reprimand or two, Fritz did not suffer fools lightly. I also gleaned much about politics, life, and, as his political memoir proclaimed, fighting the Good Fight. I learned to stand up for those who are less fortunate in circumstance and fate during these informal political science and history lessons.
In 2010, the Duluth symphony decided to hold a concert in honor of my uncle. During intermission, I sold copies of a biography I’d written about Willard in the lobby. I’d thought that, since Willard and Fritz had been close political allies, asking Fritz to write the book’s introduction made sense. He readily agreed. And when I approached Fritz about attending the event and making himself available to the audience, he said “yes.” Fritz’s only compensation was a home-cooked meal at my cousin Pat’s house and a decent motel room.
To be sure, there were times, like when we were discussing medical care for the elderly, when Walter Mondale didn’t agree with me. My bold postulation that “maybe 80-year-olds shouldn’t be getting hip replacements,” aimed at a table of 80-year-olds (some needing hip replacements), didn’t engender support. In fact, it drew a quick, though wry, retort from Fritz.
I considered Walter to be a friend but, more importantly, a mentor. I recognized, despite giving much to his state, his nation, and his world, Fritz was, first and foremost, a private person. Though I had his phone number in my iPhone, I didn’t call Fritz out of the blue. I’d ask his personal assistant Lynda to have Fritz call me when he had a moment. Invariably, he did.
There was sadness in our relationship, sadness punctuated by the passing of family and friends. Along with Dad and other members of the Litman Camp, I attended the funerals of Fritz’s beloved wife Joan and daughter Eleanor. I ended up sitting with Fritz and his pal Warren Spannus at the funeral of a law-school classmate of mine, a fine lawyer and father and husband who died, as Joan did, far too young of dementia. That Fritz would empathize with the family’s loss after having so recently dealt with similar devastation showed the true measure of the man.
There was joy in our connection as well, including being invited to dinner and a performance of a musical chronicling the Congdon mansion murders written by Eleanor’s husband, where the Litman fishing crew watched in pride as Fritz was introduced and received a standing ovation.
René and I unexpectedly received an invitation to attend Fritz’s 90th birthday celebration, a private gathering of a few hundred of the former vice president’s friends and family. The highlight of the weekend wasn’t hearing President Carter and Ambassador Albright or other luminaries praise a great man; it was the intimate brunch held the next morning. René and I were privileged to break bread with Dr. Laura Zaccaro Lee and her husband, talking about the doctor’s mother, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, and Fritz’s gutsy selection of her as his running mate in 1984.
Dad passed in 2018 and Fritz made his way north to attend the celebration of Harry’s life. Fritz took the time to visit with and mourn alongside Harry’s family and friends, and that meant the world to me. In June of 2018, my oldest son Matt drove north with Fritz and George and I to fish Elsie Lake and hoist a glass in memory of Harry. The following January, I eulogized my father at an annual local bar association memorial service, and Fritz was there. Later that same day, Mr. Mondale stood proudly by, as, in one of my last acts as a district court judge, I gave the oath of office to Sheriff Ross Litman in the very courtroom Judge Jack Litman once called his own.
There are more stories and more memories I could share. These are but a few glimpses into my connection to a decent, humble, fiery, honorable man who I was blessed to call friend.
Keep that rod tip up, Fritz, and don’t let Harry catch all the fish.
Mark Munger is a retired district court judge, a writer and author, and a lifelong resident of Northeastern Minnesota.