Joan Mondale, Art-Loving Wife of U.S. Vice President, Dies at 83

Joan Mondale, the political spouse and avid potter known as “Joan of Art” for her cultural pursuits during her husband Walter’s four years as U.S. vice president under Jimmy Carter, has died. She was 83.

She died yesterday with her husband, sons and other family members by her side, according to a statement by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, where she was a member. She had entered hospice care on Jan. 31. No cause was given.

“Joan was greatly loved by many,” the former vice president said in the statement. “We will miss her dearly.”

In 1977, upon moving with her husband into their official residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington -- making them its first vice presidential residents -- Mondale filled it with art borrowed from Midwestern museums, according to Time magazine. A year later she started over again, this time with paintings and sculptures from museums in the U.S. Southwest.

“Here people can see paintings in an intimate setting,” she explained in 1978, according to Time. “We hope it will open their eyes and make them more receptive.”

Her chance at becoming U.S. first lady was crushed in her husband’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984. He won only their home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

In his memoir, Walter Mondale credited his wife with pushing him toward his eventual opposition to the Vietnam War, and with making him give greater thought to gender equality. In his losing 1984 presidential bid, he made history by naming Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York as his running mate, the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket.

‘Real Soldier’

“I sometimes wondered if Joan knew what she was getting into as a politician’s wife,” he wrote. “But of course she did. Some political spouses love the spotlight, some hate it. Joan was just extremely good at it -- a real soldier and a great campaigner.”

Joan Adams was born on Aug. 8, 1930, in Eugene, Oregon, the first of three daughters of John Maxwell Adams, a Presbyterian minister, and the former Eleanor Jane Hall. Her father’s ministerial duties took the family to Columbus, Ohio, and Wallingford, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.

The family finally dropped anchor in St. Paul, Minnesota, where her father became chaplain of Macalester College and she became a student there, graduating in 1952 with a degree in history and minors in art and French. While a freshman at Macalester, she said she was aware of, but never met, a high-profile upperclassman named Walter Mondale.

Dating History

Following a year in Boston working in the slide library of the Museum of Fine Arts, she returned to Minnesota for a job in the education office of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. At a 1955 dinner party at the home of her sister, Jane Canby, she finally met Walter Mondale, a classmate of Jane’s husband, Bill, at the University of Minnesota Law School.

She “had an elegance that was quite outside my experience,” Walter Mondale recalled. “But she seemed to think it might be all right to date a guy who was getting started in politics.”

They had seven dates during the next six months and were married on Dec. 27, 1955. Walter Mondale became Minnesota attorney general in 1960 and U.S. senator in 1964.

From 1957 to 1962 Joan Mondale gave birth to their three children, Theodore, Eleanor and William. Eleanor Mondale Poling died in 2011 of brain cancer.

In 1972, Mondale wrote “Politics in Art,” an illustrated book for young adults. Her enthusiasm for the job of Senate spouse led some critics in Minnesota to call her “Phony Joanie.”

Reagan’s Win

When her husband became Carter’s running mate in 1976, she was volunteering as a guide at the National Gallery of Art and working for Washington Whirl-Around, a sightseeing service run by her friend, Ellen Proxmire, wife of Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire.

As president, Carter named Mondale as honorary chairman of the Federal Council of the Arts and the Humanities, which encouraged cooperation among government agencies on cultural programs. Reagan’s victory over Carter in 1980 ended the Mondale vice presidency after one term.

Campaigning for her husband’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1984, Mondale focused on pay equity, the Equal Rights Amendment and support for the arts, according to the Associated Press.

After President Bill Clinton named her husband as U.S. ambassador to Japan in 1993, Mondale brought her arts advocacy to a new audience. On one occasion she presented the mayor of Kyoto with a bowl she had made in Mashiko style, a Japanese folk technique, the New York Times reported in 1995.

“I was Joan of Art before, and now I am Joan of Art again,” she said, according to the Times.

Americans for the Arts, a Washington-based advocacy group, gave Mondale its Public Art Network Award in 2008, calling her “a tireless advocate for the arts for more than 30 years.”

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