, Newburyport, MA


February 8, 2014

Shribman: Joan of Art, without pretension


“She meant so much to people in the arts because she not only celebrated them but understood them,” says Ann Stock, former assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. “She was a potter and made the vice presidential house an art showcase.”

The exhibits Mondale installed in the house often had a regional flavor -- first New England and New York art, then art rooted in the Far West. It was an idea hatched over peanut butter sandwiches in her kitchen and fueled by her personal knowledge that politicians had little taste for galleries, but would accept an invitation to the vice president’s house.

“She was tireless on behalf of high art and public art,” says Anne Hawley, director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Indeed, one of the reasons Mondale brought to her home a Snelson sculpture from the Whitney Museum of Art — a gangling assembly of four stainless-steel tubes and 10 steel wires — was because Mayor James Griffin of Buffalo refused to install a Snelson on a public plaza there. He said it was better suited to the bottom of Lake Erie. In time Mondale won the battle of wills with Griffin, a former railway engineer who cultivated his populist image — but who eventually changed his mind.

Mondale changed many minds, some on behalf of her husband, a onetime senator defeated by Ronald Reagan three decades ago. Throughout much of that campaign, she traveled on her own, winning friends — and pen pals. “She would get into the car after every event and start writing thank-you notes,” says Heather Campion, who was the trip director for Mondale and who next month becomes the chief executive of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation.

Once Mondale grew ill with Parkinson’s disease, her husband devoted himself to ministering to her at the end of her life with the indefatigability she once applied to his political life. The two attended Christmas music concerts this winter despite the Northern Plains cold and the difficulty of maneuvering a wheelchair through snow-rutted Minnesota sidewalks. For months, Walter Mondale, still a Twin Cities luminary, turned down scores of invitations, saying simply, “I want to be home with Joan.”

“He felt it was something he owed her,” says Maxine Isaacs, who served as press secretary in the Mondale campaign. “He knew she took care of the home as he was making his way, and at the end he wanted to repay the debt.”

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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