Back in 2007, when the Minnesota Legislature was working to rename a stretch of Duluth highway to honor Walter Mondale, his response was as genuine and matter-of-fact as he was a political giant.
“Well, it’s very flattering,” he simply stated.
The stretch of U.S. 53 from Central Entrance to near West Superior Street was later given its new moniker: “Walter F. Mondale Drive.” The vote was overwhelming and deserved. Within weeks, the now-familiar forest-green roadside markers went up, re-identifying the route.
And Mondale? He remained even-keeled, down-to-earth, typically Minnesotan, despite his status as a national and global leader.
But he also flashed a hint of the wry humor well known for decades by many in the Northland: “I really appreciate this honor,” he said. “I really hope it doesn’t cause accidents.”
Nope, there’ve been no such collisions. But Minnesotans — and Americans alike — may have felt like they were hit by a truck Monday when Mondale’s family made the sad announcement that the former vice president and Democratic nominee for the White House had died. He was 93.
Mondale leaves an imprint as vast as his five-plus-decades-long political career. He also was a U.S senator, Minnesota attorney general, and ambassador to Japan. In 2002, after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone perished in a plane crash on the Iron Range, Mondale, then 74, replaced him on the ballot. His narrow loss was the only time Minnesotans failed to support him on an election day.
Mondale leaves a legacy as lasting as his transformation of the vice president’s role from do-little to having an office inside the White House for the first time, attending presidential meetings, lobbying Congress and others, and traveling the world on diplomatic missions.
And Mondale always will be known as a political groundbreaker after choosing Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 as his running mate, making her the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket.
Mondale, as a member of the Northwest Airlines board of directors, helped land an aircraft-maintenance facility in Duluth and a call center in Chisholm. Working with Congressman Jim Oberstar and others, he helped bring a health benefits firm to Duluth. When a taconite plant was on the verge of closing, Mondale, in his ambassador’s role, negotiated to keep it open.
More recently, Mondale was a public, outspoken, and influential opponent of copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. His advocacy included a commentary exclusively for the News Tribune in 2018.
An avid conservationist, he had earlier promoted the creation of Voyageurs National Park, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, and the Minnesota Valley and Sherburne national wildlife refuges, as the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported this week.
Mondale’s many accomplishments belied his humble roots in the tiny farming town of Ceylon, Minnesota, just north of the Iowa border, where he was born in the summer of 1928. His father was a Methodist minister, his mother a part-time music teacher.
A curving four-lane stretch of pavement in Duluth isn’t the only thing that will forever carry Mondale’s name and legacy. In 2001, the University of Minnesota Law School named its new building Walter F. Mondale Hall. Fourteen years after that, the university presented him a lifetime achievement award. His words in accepting the honor are appropriately repeated this week, following the three-count conviction Tuesday of Derek Chauvin: “If I have one hope in my public life, it was the ongoing quest for social justice in America,” he said, as the St. Paul paper recounted. “I believe more than ever today (that) civil rights, access to justice, equality for men and women, and human rights are still the issues of our future.”
Mondale always chose his words well.
May Minnesota never forget.