Walter Mondale

Citizen from Ceylon, MN

My Visit With The Vice President

In adding to our archives at the Pioneer Museum, I had thought it would be of interest to include an interview with a well known Martin County native that became Vice President of the United States. That was, of course, Walter F. Mondale, who was born in Ceylon. Consequently, I e-mailed him in late February asking if he would agree to an interview. To my surprise, I received a response the very next day stating that he would. The following is a brief account of that day and the interview with former Vice President Mondale.

It was an early morning in late March; a light winter snowfall didn’t materialize to the extent predicted. My wife, Carol, and I left at 7:00 a.m. allowing extra time due to the weather conditions. We stopped at Gemini Music to pick up Shelly, who was going to do the videotaping, and we made one more stop in Blue Earth to pick up my niece, Lorrie. Incidentally, she is presently the owner of the former Mondale home in Elmore.

We arrived at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm in downtown Minneapolis at 9:30 a.m. as the roads were in good driving condition. We were early, as my appointment with Mr. Mondale was at 11:15 a.m. I drove up to the third level, pressed the keypad and was asked who I was going to see. I said I had an appointment with Mr. Mondale, told them my name, and immediately the gate lifted so we could drive in to the client parking. If we didn’t know better, this could have made us feel quite important. I then called his secretary to let her know that we had arrived. She asked me to hold momentarily, and then asked me to come up to meet her in the conference room on the 20th floor and get the video equipment ready as Mr. Mondale would see us early.

As we were getting prepared in the conference room, Mr. Mondale’s secretary provided us with enough coffee and bottled water for a small army. The hospitality shown to us was most impressive. She also provided two large pictures of Mr. Mondale, one in his army uniform and another, as a very young child, with his older brother in a little wagon. After getting set up for the interview, we informed his secretary that we were ready. She said she would send him down.

As I waited in anticipation, I wondered what to expect. I wondered what he would be like; this individual of humble beginnings born in Ceylon who rose to the pinnacle of power by becoming the vice president of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. Someone said they saw his secretary walking down the hallway, and thinking he would be coming from that direction, we were all taken by surprise as he came through the opposite doorway.

When he entered the room, any preconceived impressions or uncertainties that I may have had immediately vanished as this smiling gentleman with the warm, welcoming handshake and jovial remarks greeted us. He immediately made us feel most welcome and at ease. He asked how things were in Fairmont, Ceylon, and Martin County as I thanked him for taking time for an interview and began showing him our book, Chain of Lakes Country – An Illustrated History of Martin County, our 2008 calendar, and our latest MCHS Newsletter. He was obviously intrigued by the book and immediately picked out the house in Ceylon where he had lived nearly 80 years ago, as he paged through commenting on other pictures as well.

After visiting for what seemed like about fifteen minutes, we sat down at the large conference table for the interview I had asked from him. I had planned that we would discuss his life from his birth in Ceylon, Martin County, through his youth growing up in small towns in Southern Minnesota, to his college experience, his political career, and what he is involved with at the present time. It was more than obvious as our discussion unfolded that he was genuinely sincere in providing me with both a very interesting and a very informative interview involving a man that came from small town America, yet rose to great heights in serving his fellow man in many capacities. As we talked, our discussion involved his parents and family as well as what life was like in Ceylon, Heron Lake, and later Elmore while he was growing up in these small Southern Minnesota communities.

As a high school student in Elmore, it was obvious from his 1946 senior yearbook that he was a leader in every respect. He was a standout in athletics, with the nickname “crazy legs” for his ability as a running back in football. In addition, he served as captain of both the football and basketball teams his senior year. He also participated in many other extra-curricular activities offered, as well as being class president his junior year. Yet when I asked about his leadership roles and athletic ability as a student, he was very modest in stating that in a small school like Elmore if you were a warm body, you just participated in those activities.

We went on to discuss college and law school. As an undergraduate, he majored in political science. He said that he went into the army after graduating from college so that he could then afford to attend law school on the G. I. Bill after being discharged.

I asked how he became involved in politics. He talked about working for Hubert Humphrey’s senatorial campaign, being appointed Attorney General at a young age, his work in the Senate, and eventually being elected the 42nd Vice President of the United States. I asked him to elaborate on how, as vice president, he was instrumental in expanding the role of the vice president’s office from one of being merely a figure head, to a functional position that for the first time served as a true presidential advisor, a model that has been followed by subsequent vice presidents. He also discussed his work with Jimmy Carter during Carter’s presidency, and the fact that they still keep in contact with each other.

He spoke of the importance of the values he learned as a youngster from his family, his father being a Methodist minister and his mother a teacher, and the values he acquired in growing up in small towns in Minnesota and how they influenced his life. I asked him what advice he would give a young person that had an interest in entering politics. His comments were relative to public service in any capacity. I interpreted this to mean doing something worthy, being of service to your fellow man in whatever endeavor you choose. This might certainly involve politics, but it could also include many other forms of public service. We discussed so many things, as the interview went on for over 40 minutes.

In closing the interview, I had planned to ask him about the many interviews he’d had in his lifetime, as well as which ones were most notable, and in turn I had planned to make a joking reference to where this interview rated compared to the others. However, before I could finish my question, he said none were as good as this one. This was a compliment that I didn’t deserve; however, it served to reflect the character of the person I came to know in that short span of approximately sixty to ninety minutes.

After the interview, we continued to visit about many things, including politics, as my wife was taking pictures and as he was signing autographs. He was in no hurry to rush off, but rather took plenty of time to talk, reminisce, joke, and make certain we had what we wanted in our interview. It seemed important to him too, as he asked if he could also have a copy of the interview.

As I think back at that visit with the former Vice President of the United States, I remember a truly kind gentleman, a person of integrity and honesty, a sincere individual that hasn’t forgotten his roots and someone who considers all the citizens of Minnesota and our great nation as being important. However, I especially remember a person who was so genuine and pleasant to visit with, a person that had a wonderful sense of humor, and a person that exhibited such a warm and caring personality that he immediately made me feel comfortable and welcome. What an honor, what a gentleman, what a statesman!

Story generously provided by: The Martin County Historical Society

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