When Walter F. Mondale died on April 19 at the age of 93, the numerous in-depth news articles and repeated MPR updates about his passing were only one measure of how widely he was revered.
A glance at social media feeds was enough: Pictures of Mondale with people of all kinds — some at large receptions, others gripped in one-on-one handshakes for official endorsements — revealed that identifying with Minnesota’s great statesman was a THING.
Alas, no photo exists of me with Mondale, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a connection.
We were, in fact, family.
That’s something my late mother Barbara, one of Mondale’s adoring second cousins, never let us forget.
“Theodore and Claribel Mondale sat here many times,” she reminded, running her hand over the age-smoothed round oak table, circa-1900, inherited from her parents.
“Be sure to keep it in the family,” Mom exhorted.
It’s not a highly popular name these days, but there are lots of men on the Cowan branch of my family tree bearing “Walter” as either a first or middle name, including my maternal grandfather, his firstborn son and my cousin Walt.
Like Mondale, they were all named for the same ancestor, the Walter Cowan my maternal grandfather had in common with his first cousin — Mondale’s mother, Claribel (Cowan) Mondale.
As Mondale moved up the political power ranks, the Cowan clan would have burst with pride for their famous relative, were that something Scottish Presbyterians did.
But since dour Scots are known more for their reticence and reserved reactions, it was mostly my mother — a lifelong elementary school teacher — who rarely hesitated to let people know of her tie to the distinguished Minnesota senator and attorney general, U.S. vice president and respected American diplomat.
“Mondale is my second cousin,” she readily volunteered whenever his name happened to arise in a discussion of state/federal politics, history or policy.
The one critique Mondale endured at the hands of the Cowans concerned a tendency in his campaigning, particularly within Minnesota, to broadcast his Norwegian roots.
“He’s half Cowan,” my mom would fairly hiss after seeing newspaper photos of him enthusiastically downing lutefisk and lefse at a campaign stop in some rural Lutheran church, perhaps failing to fully appreciate how many more potential voters were of Scandinavian descent.
“His great-grandfather came here from Scotland.”
She never let HIM forget their relationship either, and it’s a testament to Mondale’s patience and gracious, gentlemanly character that he frequently sent short but personal notes in response to her flood of family news, clippings and over-sharing updates. That continued until her death in early 2020, when upon learning of her passing he penned a thoughtful note of sympathy — and, somewhat to my disbelief, said he would miss hearing from her.
Maybe it was her drive to draw attention to the familial Mondale link that led me to hold back. Over the years, my husband and I were lucky enough on several occasions to be in the same place as Mondale — at receptions, meetings, even one special 90th birthday celebration for a mutual friend.
Fritz was always the star, typically surrounded by people trying to catch his attention, secure his endorsement or rub a bit of charisma from his coattails. Sometimes we would quietly greet him, allowing others to vie for the photo, the long conversation, the political benefit.
Hence, I have no picture to post of myself or my husband — nor, more regrettably, of my mother and her brothers — with Mondale. Instead, we are left with the knowledge of our common heritage, the tangible evidence of Cowan family heirlooms and a warm sense of pride that someone with whom we share a bloodline commendably represented our state and nation for decades, with intelligence and integrity to spare.
Hang onto your photos; we’ll just be sure to keep him in the family.
Check out Time for Moore, Jane Turpin Moore’s blog, at https://timeformoore566445504.wordpress.com.