The St. Croix River lost one of its greatest champions and stewards of the past century this week. Walter “Fritz” Mondale passed away Monday, April 19 at age 93. He had a long and accomplished career in public service, including helping pass the legislation that protected the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers as Wild and Scenic.
Mondale served as Minnesota attorney general from 1960 to 1964, U.S. Senator from 1964 to 1976, vice president to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, and Ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996. He ran against President Ronald Reagan in 1984, choosing the first female vice president candidate for a major party, Geraldine Ferraro — and lost in a landslide. In 2002, he ran for Senate again in the days after Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, and lost narrowly to former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman.
In his final days, Mondale reportedly talked to Carter, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris. Carter issued a statement upon Mondale’s passing, noting his dedication to public service, and the way he changed the office of the vice president.
“Today I mourn the passing of my dear friend Walter Mondale, who I consider the best vice president in our country’s history,” Carter said. “During our administration, Fritz used his political skill and personal integrity to transform the vice presidency into a dynamic, policy-driving force that had never been seen before and still exists today. He was an invaluable partner and an able servant of the people of Minnesota, the United States, and the world. Fritz Mondale provided us all with a model for public service and private behavior.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Tim Walz, former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and many others issued statements mourning Mondale’s passing. Conservative columnist David Brooks said Mondale was “possibly the kindest and most humble politician I’ve known.”
Despite his time in Washington and abroad, Mondale remained strongly connected to the St. Croix. He and Joan bought a cabin on the river in Scandia in 1992, a place that would bring them great memories.
“I sit on my deck and listen for the sound of the wooden canoe paddles hitting the metal gunnels in the river valley,” Mondale wrote in the introduction to Craig Blacklock’s 2018 photography book about the St. Croix. “Songbirds, sand hill cranes and trumpeter swans join with the laughter of young and old enjoying this river. An important heron rookery is just up river from our spot, as is a large bat cave. Eagles, red tail hawks and other raptors cruise over the valley.”
The river’s continued wildness and magic is in large part thanks to efforts he was involved in to protect it.
During his time in the Senate, Mondale worked with his counterpart from the other side of the St. Croix in Wisconsin, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, to pass the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968. This law created a system for designating and protecting the nation’s remaining free-flowing and healthy rivers, and included the St. Croix and Namekagon among the first eight rivers to be designated.
Nelson’s daughter Tia, an environmental advocate based in Madison, Wis., said Mondale was a dear friend.
“He made me laugh a lot,” she said. “Like when he joked that my father tricked him into sponsoring the addition of the St. Croix to Wild & Scenic Rivers Act by failing to say all opposition was on his side of the river. Then he told me it was one of his proudest achievements in his life.”
In later years, Mondale repeatedly warned about damage to the river in “nicks and cuts,” saying the biggest threat today is the accumulation of small degradations.
In a 2013 interview, Mondale reflected on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was 45 years old at that point. He explained how the intervening years had shown the value of the legislation — and its shortcomings. Then Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway superintendent Chris Stein asked Mondale how he would amend the act today.
“Depends on the river but I would try to increase funding for the Park Service so they could better do their jobs, I would like to expand the protections of the law along the river by easement and purchase to prevent spoliation, and I would like to add protections against noise and light pollution,” Mondale said.
The St. Croix River Association said in response to Mondale’s passing that the organization will “strive to live up to his example, his service, and his work for our beloved rivers.” All donations made in Mondale’s name will be added to the the group’s endowment fund for long-term river protection.
In 2019, five sites along the St. Croix River were renamed to honor Mondale, including a day use area at William O’Brien State Park, where a ceremony was held.
Mondale was born in Ceylon, Minnesota in Martin County, on the Iowa border, and grew up in Elmore, in Faribault County. He attended Macalester College and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He joined the Army after receiving his bachelors degree to help pay for law school and served at Fort Knox during the Korean War.
With help from the G.I. Bill, he then received a law degree from the University of Minnesota. He married Joan Adams in 1955, later saying a canoe trip down the St. Croix River was when they fell in love. The Mondales had three children, Ted, Eleanor, and William Hall Mondale.
“I loved him as deeply as it goes,” said Tia Nelson, who grew up around the Senate while her father and Mondale were serving. “He was one of the most honorable and humble public servants in American history.”
Mondale helped protect an amazing river and created an amazing legacy that millions still enjoy each year. But he never thought the work was over, instead urging future generations to protect the inheritance.
“Citizens continue to be key protectors for this river and its large watershed, working in partnership with federal, state and local resource managers,” he wrote. “Citizen advocacy is essential to defending this wonderful and diverse resource, so close to a major and growing metropolitan area.”
This video from John Kaul celebrates Mondale’s work to protect Wild and Scenic Rivers:
The TPT documentary Wild and Scenic St. Croix, directed by John Kaul and Tom Reiter, was released in 2018 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
We lost a hero in my opinion. Walter Mondale passed major legislation to save the St Croix as a wilderness river for generations – and he was so humble about all that he accomplished. Such a statesman – and a genuinely nice guy. He will be greatly missed and we can honor him by carrying on his work to protect this beautiful river.
Donna Mienk/Jerry Werle