Former President Jimmy Carter joined Vice President Joe Biden and nearly 1,400 other mourners Saturday at the funeral for Joan Mondale, whose life and spirit were best captured, Carter said, in the phrase, “Live your life as if it was a work of art.’’
Mondale, who died Monday at age 83, was remembered as a tenacious, driven woman who was a wife, mother, artist and activist over the course of her marriage to former Vice President Walter “Fritz’’ Mondale.
Carter said he and his wife, Rosalynn, shared an “intimate and constantly gratifying life as friends” with the Mondales that began the day they met in 1976 at his home in Plains, Ga., when he was considering vice presidential candidates.
“We fell in love with Joan and decided that both of them would have to come together,” Carter said to great laughter from those gathered at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis.
Carter, Biden, Joan Mondale’s sister, friends and aides all spoke warmly of Mondale’s talents while interspersing saucy anecdotes about her “core of irreverence.” Many of the jokes poked fun at her husband of 58 years, who along with her sons and family members was at her side when she died at Mount Olivet Careview Home in Minneapolis, where she received hospice care in her final days.
Biden spoke lovingly of the Mondales embracing and guiding him in 1972 when he was a newly elected senator from Delaware who had lost his wife and daughter in a car crash.
More recently, Biden said, he met with a high-level official from Japan, where Walter Mondale served as ambassador during the 1990s. “ ‘We miss Joan Mondale,’ ” Biden said the official told him. “They didn’t miss you, Fritz,” Biden added, getting a roar from the crowd and Mondale himself.
Biden also spoke of Joan Mondale’s passions, including her belief in seeing women win equal rights. “She pushed as hard for equal pay for women even when no one else but you was talking about it, Fritz,” Biden said.
The mood throughout the service was mostly upbeat, warm and playful, with a strong sense of the arts that Joan Mondale believed in so strongly that it earned her the nickname “Joan of Art.’’
Members of the Minnesota Orchestra played as guests entered for the service, including Gov. Mark Dayton, his running mate, Tina Smith, and most of the state’s congressional delegation. The Mondales’ oldest and youngest children, Ted and William Mondale, sat in the front row at the service, next to their father and the Carters. Biden and his wife, Jill, sat behind the Mondales.
Joan Mondale’s cremated remains were in an urn on a table at the front of the sanctuary during the two-hour service, with abundant sprays of pink roses and tulips on either side.
Bagpipers would later lead the mourners to a public reception across the street at Orchestra Hall.
Carter recalled that he learned of Joan Mondale’s insistence on working for the arts when he was taking office after the 1976 election.
“Until I met Joan Mondale, I thought Rosalynn was the most persistent person on Earth,” Carter quipped, adding that she had secret meetings with artists, politicians and labor leaders to figure out how to best advocate for the arts.
The former president read directly from one of his 22 diary entries in 1978 that referred to Joan. The time he spent with her choosing directors for the board of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities “exceeds the time that I have spent on bringing peace to the Middle East,” he said, to robust, knowing laughter.
Leaving a more ‘civilized’ world
Art Zegelbone, cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Japan when the Mondales arrived, spoke of her influence there, saying her love and knowledge of pottery, an ancient Japanese art, was Cupid’s arrow to that country.
He described Mondale as a “battery of positive energy” and her arrival in Japan as a “coup” for someone in his position because she was not a dilettante.
He spoke of her easy conversations with world-renowned artists like Frank Stella and Claes Oldenburg.
Because of Mondale’s generosity with her work, Zegelbone said someone today in Japan was undoubtedly drinking tea from one of her own pieces of pottery and remembering her.
Zegelbone and others spoke of her “wide and inclusive” group of friends. “She was sort of the needle on the compass of truth and beauty,” he said.
Former aide and friend Judy Whittlesey said Joan Mondale “truly believed that everything we do adds up to make a valuable difference.”
To this day, Whittlesey follows the example her friend set of never leaving a hotel room without making sure every light has been turned off.
Mondale resigned her last official position — choosing subjects for stamps as a member of the Postmaster General’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee — in 2010. She had been in declining health for years, especially since the death of her daughter, Eleanor, from brain cancer in 2011.
Her younger sister, Jane Canby, talked of Mondale having wanted from any early age a broader life than that of the wife and hostess that was the convention of the time.
While still raising her own children, Mondale held garage sales for the DFL, mowed the lawn and organized a weekly neighborhood fresh vegetable coop.
“She was interested in making her community a more civilized place,” Canby said.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson