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MINNEAPOLIS — Political dignitaries joined family members at Saturday’s memorial service for Joan Mondale, the wife of a former vice president who was remembered as “a highly charged battery of positive energy” for her passion and persistence about arts, politics and community.
Vice President Joe Biden, former President Jimmy Carter and their spouses Jill and Rosalynn were at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis to pay tribute to Walter Mondale’s devoted partner, who died Monday at age 83 after an extended illness. Leading Minnesota officials, along with Japan’s consul general, filled rows of pews at the two-hour service.
Carter credited Joan Mondale for bolstering a facet of his legacy: a commitment to art and artists across the country and beyond. He recalled her as dogged in pushing his administration to build lasting support for the fine arts.
“Until I met Joan Mondale, I thought Rosalynn was the most persistent woman on earth,” Carter said, noting 22 entries in his personal diary about Mondale lobbying him on the arts in one year alone.
“I tried to find a phrase to describe Joan, and I found this one: ‘Live your life as though it was a work of art,’” Carter said.
Joan Mondale leveraged the political prominence of her husband to focus national attention on arts and culture, also transforming the role of second lady in the process. He was vice president in the 1970s, a Democratic nominee for president in the 1980s and an ambassador to Japan in the 1990s.
Walter Mondale mostly sat stoically as others shared stories about his wife of 58 years. But tales by Biden, Carter and others about how his plucky wife often upstaged him drew his laughter.
Biden praised not only Joan Mondale’s commitment to the arts, but also her activism on issues such as equal pay and rights for women.
“Joan was as vocal and as present and as consistent in her feeling on those aspects of people’s lives ... as she seemed to be about art,” he said.
Biden also spoke of his friendship with the Mondales, which began with his own election in 1972. He noted that he had just lost his wife and daughter in a car accident before arriving in the U.S. Senate, where he was welcomed by Joan and Walter Mondale. “You embraced me. You included me. You brought me in,” he said.
The Mondales’ two sons, William and Ted, read from Scripture. So did musician Chan Poling, who was married to the couple’s daughter, Eleanor. She died a few years ago after a battle with brain cancer.
Joan’s two sisters were also in attendance. One, Jane Canby, described her older sister as the consummate Girl Scout, collecting badges throughout life in her pursuit of “a more civilized community.”
“While she fully supported Fritz’s goals and how to reach them, she also saw this as an opportunity to work on some of her own interests and projects,” Canby said, using the former vice president’s nickname. “She did it with natural grace and humor.”
Japan was represented by Consul General Masaharu Yoshida. Art Zegelbone, who was a U.S. cultural affairs officer in Tokyo when the Mondales occupied the embassy there, said she drew instant adoration abroad, in part by immersing herself in local culture. An avid potter, she often gave away the cups and bowls she made as gestures of goodwill.
“All around Japan are these small testaments to Joan, to what she did and what was most important to her” Zegelbone said before describing her as the “battery of positive energy.”
Throughout the service there were simple touches to connect with aspects of her life. The urn containing her ashes was made by Warren MacKenzie, a renowned potter whom Mondale considered a mentor. One of the remembrances was from Emily Galusha, a local clay potter close to Joan Mondale.
Members of the Minnesota Orchestra, where she was once on the governing board, played before the service. A Japanese vocalist sang a famous Asian folk tune. The recessional was by the Macalester College Pipe Band, a campus dear to the Mondales. They both attended the St. Paul liberal arts school, though they were a few years apart. They met on a blind date in 1955 and married soon after.
A church official said more than 1,000 people were at the service and thousands more in 26 states and four countries tuned in to a live stream.
There will be a second service for Mondale at a later date in Washington.