Walter F. Mondale '56, Former Vice President, U.S. Senator, and Ambassador, Dies at 93
A dedicated public servant and lifelong friend of the Law School, he reshaped the vice presidency and exemplified lawyer leadership
Walter F. Mondale ‘56, former vice president, U.S. senator, and ambassador to Japan, died April 19 at the age of 93.
“We are heartbroken by the news of Vice President Mondale’s death,” said Garry W. Jenkins, Dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law. “As a politician, public servant, diplomat, and lawyer, Walter Mondale exemplified the values of leadership and service that we seek to foster at Minnesota Law. In addition, he led with a remarkable degree of warmth and humility that always put his fellow citizens and the common good first.”
Added Jenkins, “We have lost a giant and a deeply loyal friend.”
Throughout his amazing career, Mondale remained an unpretentious, yet forceful advocate for civil rights, human rights and the American labor movement. As Minnesota attorney general, he opposed Florida’s effort to strip legal representation from indigent defendants. As a U.S. senator, he pushed for the passage—and helped write—the 1968 Fair Housing Act. In 1984, he made history by picking a woman—Geraldine Ferraro of New York—as his running mate, a first for a major party presidential ticket.
When Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, he asked Mondale to represent the United States as its ambassador to Japan, a position which Mondale held until 1996.
When he retired from public life, Mondale remained active, including maintaining a vibrant practice at the Dorsey law firm, pursuing social justice issues, and volunteering his time and expertise to causes he loved.
“During his busy, celebrated and honorable life, he always found time for the Law School,” said Robert Stein ‘61, Everett Fraser Professor of Law and Distinguished Global Professor.
Raised on the prairie in southwest Minnesota, Mondale was the son of a Methodist minister and a music teacher. He began his collegiate studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, where he met his future wife—Joan Adams—before transferring to the University. During his free time, Mondale worked on the political campaigns of rising stars such as Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman.
After graduation from the University in 1951, Mondale served two years in the U.S. Army, then returned to study law. He graduated cum laude from the Law School in 1956.
Mondale’s career got its first boost in 1960 when Governor Orville Freeman appointed the young lawyer to the post of Minnesota attorney general. Instead of focusing solely on his home state, he led an effort to oppose Florida’s decision to end state-funded legal representation for criminal defendants unable to afford an attorney. Mondale recruited 21 other attorneys general to join him in a Gideon v. Wainwright amicus brief. In its unanimous decision upholding a Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the brief Mondale championed.
Mondale’s rise to national prominence began in 1964 when Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag appointed him to the U.S. Senate. In that position, he supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and co-authored the Fair Housing Act of 1968, shepherding that landmark legislation into law against great odds.
“He thought it was one of the great achievements of his life,” said Myron Orfield, the Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law and the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.
Throughout his life, Mondale tracked the impact of the Fair Housing Act. In 2018, he wrote an assessment on the law’s impact for the New York Times. “The law was Congress’s effort to remedy a great historical evil: the large-scale exclusion and isolation of blacks from white communities,” he wrote.
But, Mondale noted, the Fair Housing Act “suffered from neglect,” which allowed “the evil of residential segregation” to grow in many places, including Minnesota. The former vice president, Orfield said, saw a connection between the police killings of Philando Castile and George Floyd and a lack of societal change.
“He believed what was happening in America was the unfinished business of the Kerner Commission and Fair Housing Act,” Orfield said. “America had never really become racially integrated and just.”
Recent demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd, inspired Mondale. “The battle for civil rights is a journey, not an end point,” he wrote in a 2020 Star Tribune article. “Each generation is tasked with the hard work of serving in the great fight for justice. Our neighbors who took to the streets over the past few weeks have joined a great cause. I thank them.”
Mondale remained in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, defeating Republican opponents in 1966 and 1972. In 1976, he was tapped by Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter to be his running mate. When Carter won the general election, Mondale ascended to the vice presidency. Historically, vice presidents were seen, but not heard. Carter and Mondale changed that.
“It was a remarkable vice presidency,” Stein said. “It was the first time a vice president was involved in presidential decisions.”
After Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, Mondale worked behind-the-scenes to line up support for a presidential run of his own in 1984. The Minnesotan secured the Democratic nomination, choosing Ferraro as a running mate, then losing to Reagan in the general election.
Unlike many politicians, Mondale remained wry and humble on the campaign trail. At a gathering of Minnesota dairy farmers in the 1980s, someone asked why he’d make a good president. “I have trouble answering that,” he said. “If my father ever heard me tell him that I would make a good president, I would have been taken directly to the woodshed.”
A Loyal Friend to the Law School
Mondale’s commitment to Minnesota Law remained deep throughout his lifetime. While preparing for the Law School’s centennial in 1988, Stein, who was dean at the time, compiled a history of the institution, then asked Mondale to write a foreword. Despite an impending overseas trip, the former vice president took the time to complete the assignment.
“He always had time for the Law School,” Stein said.
That loyalty didn’t end when Mondale retired. In recent years, Stein asked him to analyze U.S. v. Nixon and the legal concept of presidential immunity for his “U.S. Supreme Court and Great Cases That Have Shaped the Nation” course.
“Since 1953 when he started at the Law School, Walter Mondale has had an enormous impact on our community from his service as an editor of the Minnesota Law Review to speaking at a recent conference on civil rights,” Jenkins said. “He also loved mentoring and interacting with students; I know that he took great joy in the fact that the Law School’s ice hockey team is called the ‘Fighting Mondales’ and was ecstatic when a group of law students serenaded him with an original song called ‘Walter Frederick Mondale’ --set to the tune of ‘Alexander Hamilton,’ the opening number from the hit musical Hamilton-- during our annual parody show a few years ago.”
Caitlinrose H. Fisher ‘15 remembers working with Mondale while serving as lead articles editor at Minnesota Law Review. In collaboration with the former vice president and Stein, she co-authored an article examining the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in the post 9/11 era. “He had a strong desire to protect individual civil liberties and set up checks and balances so the government can do what it needs to do without hurting individuals,” she said.
During the research, writing and editing of the article, Fisher found Mondale a thoughtful collaborator. “He was so good natured and kind spirited,” she added. “He could connect you with anyone and he was making sure we don’t forget our history.”
Fatjon Kaja ‘19 met Mondale at a a photo shoot at the Law School. While the photographer fretted about lighting, Mondale chatted with Kaja and the other students. He asked Kaja, who was born in Albania, his thoughts on Minnesota and inquired what he was studying at the Law School.
“He was soft-spoken, not braggadocious,” Kaja said. “I thought he was quite something.”
Mondale’s life and legacy has impacted Tony Sanchez, 1L, in another way. Sanchez is the recipient of the Walter F. Mondale Scholarship. “I don’t know what I would have done without it,” he said. “I’ve been working three jobs, including one as a weekend barista. I use that money to buy groceries and pay the rent. It means a ton.”
Jenkins recalled Mondale’s genial spirit and kindness.
“On a personal level, I’m so grateful for his friendship, advice, and generous support,” he said. “In the long and storied history of the University of Minnesota Law School, Walter Mondale is among our most distinguished graduates. His life and accomplishments will continue to inspire future generations of law students who will enter through the doors of the building that bears his name.”
The Law School has posted a virtual remembrance book for members of the Minnesota Law community to share their recollections and reflections on the life and legacy of this great icon.
Learn more about the Walter F. Mondale Scholarship Fund, designed the ease the financial burdens of Minnesota Law students.
Todd Melby is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.