Welcome to Elmore, Home of Fritz Mondale

updated 07/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1984 01:00AM

Fritz Mondale first cast his eyes on Washington, D.C. in the late summer of 1941. He was 13 years old when his father, the Rev. Theodore Sigvaard Mondale, loaded his wife and three sons into the family Ford, stuffed $150 in his pockets and set out from Elmore, Minn. to New York City and the nation's capital. By day they slowly moved East, towing a homemade trailer filled with canned food, mattresses and a bedroom dresser. By night they slept by the roadside to avoid paying campsite fees. After four weeks they arrived in Washington—a scruffy group, gazing in wonder down Pennsylvania Avenue at the glittering dome of the Capitol. "We must have looked like a bunch of Minnesota hicks," says Fritz' younger brother by seven years, Mort Mondale, 49 (now an executive with the National Education Association in Washington, D.C). "Dad insisted we visit the Senate and our Senator from Minnesota, Henrik Shipstead. He invited us for lunch in the Senate dining room. I can still see Fritz eating the spaghetti and meatballs and hiding his bare feet under the table." Recalls Fritz, "I was a little embarrassed going without shoes. See, in the summer I never wore shoes except on Sunday mornings, and my toes had spread out like duck feet. I'd have tears every Sunday morning because Dad would have to push my feet into those shoes."

Young Fritz Mondale never forgot his first excursion into the stately epicenter of American power. Back in Elmore he set about forming his first political organization, which he dubbed "the Republicrats." "I don't remember it going anywhere," laughs brother Mort. But Fritz' next few years in Elmore would witness the awakening of a political ambition that would propel him over the next four decades into roles of mounting influence: campaign organizer to Hubert Humphrey (1948), Minnesota Attorney General (1960-64), U.S. Senator (1964-76), Vice-President (1977-80) and now, as the Democratic National Convention meets in San Francisco this week, his party's probable nominee for President.

It's hard to recognize the poor preacher's son of 40 years ago in the polished, starched politician Walter Mondale has become. Yet the compassion, caution and inner strength that have marked his political rise took shape during his boyhood.

"Welcome to Elmore, Home of Fritz Mondale!" reads the sign on Route 169, which rolls past towering grain elevators and cornfields stretching clear to Iowa. "You are never going to understand Fritz unless you understand the land he grew out of," insists Mort Mondale. That land—vast and fertile—made a small fortune for Theodore Mondale during his days as a farmer and speculator in the early years of the 20th century. But with the sudden drop in farm prices after World War I, it turned him into a virtual pauper overnight. In the 1920s banks foreclosed on both his farms. In 1923 he lost his first wife, Jessie, to encephalitis, leaving him to care for their four children. (Two of Fritz Mondale's half brothers from that first marriage survive—Lester, 80, a retired Unitarian minister from Fredericktown, Mo. and Clifford, 78, a retired salesman now living in Pine Island, Minn.) The elder Mondale never fully recovered from those tragedies.

In 1925, at 49, he was remarried, to Claribel Cowan, a 32-year-old music teacher and Northwestern University graduate. He had felt a call to study for the ministry and the couple spent the next decade drifting through a succession of Methodist pastorates in tiny Minnesota towns. Their first son, Clarence, called Pete (now a professor of American studies at George Washington University), was born in 1926. Fritz was born on Jan. 5, 1928 in Ceylon (pop. 543). Nine years later the call came to serve in Elmore, at a church with a loyal congregation of about 250 and a decrepit parsonage whose condition shocked even the penurious Mondales. "My mother broke down and cried when she saw it," says Pete. "It was a ramshackle affair, the roof leaked and there was no insulation. We used to try and keep the furnace going with corncobs, but the breezes kept on coming through."

Nine-year-old Fritz, "the Preacher's Kid," had trouble at first breaking in with the other children of Elmore. "It took us a while to size him up," says Elmore's rural mail carrier, Gene Kelly, who became one of Fritz' best pals. By the end of the year, however, Mon-dale's life began to settle into the familiar patterns of small-town boyhood: daily roller-skating down Main Street after school, nickel movies at the Lyric Theater, swimming in a nearby gravel pit, Boy Scout outings.

Perhaps in reaction to his strait-laced, Scandinavian father, Fritz also developed into a young cutup. Church was a serious, twice-weekly obligation for the Mondale family—Wednesday night and Sunday—but Fritz maintained an irreverence that his neighbors remember well. During the services, says former neighbor Harold Norman, "He used to talk a lot. There were times when his father chewed him out right there in church." Young Mondale also sometimes helped himself to the collection plate. He remembers being thrashed by his father for the thefts. "I was punished in the old-fashioned way," he says. "Like all kids I would steal a little money or tell a white lie. When that happened he'd have a pretty painful remedy."

Fritz also developed a reputation as a prankster—tipping over outhouses and sneaking into the state fair in the trunk of a car. His friends still reminisce about "the Great Halloween Caper of 1944," back when Elmore was a dry town and six bootleggers did a booming business, which was blinked at by the local police. Fritz and Gene Kelly painted signs advertising the bathtub brewers with messages such as "Two Blocks to Joe and Harry's Liquor." On Halloween night they went to work. When Elmore residents woke up the next morning they discovered huge placards hanging all over town. "It took the police all day to get them down," says Gene Kelly. "The beauty of the whole thing was that it was completely legal."

If Fritz was high-spirited, he also worked hard. With the rest of the family he was mobilized to augment the meager income from the Reverend Mon-dale's parsonage. While Claribel earned 75 cents an hour by teaching music, Fritz sang for his supper at church and social occasions. "I sang at every wedding and funeral for four years," he says. "We used to say we could marry or bury them cheaper than anyone else. Dad would preach, Mom would play the organ and I'd sing." The Reverend Mondale kept a large garden in which he grew tomatoes, sweet corn, cantaloupes and green beans. In the summer he and his sons would drive to nearby towns to sell the vegetables door-to-door. "We all worked in the garden," remembers Pete. "Dad never made more than $1,800 a year, so we just squeaked by. But we never felt poor." Joyce Kelly, one of Fritz' high school classmates, has a different recollection. "They were poor as church mice," she says.

Fritz held down a variety of jobs throughout his teens. After his sophomore year, he scalded, cleaned and dressed chickens in a poultry plant. When a hog cholera epidemic required the vaccination of Elmore's pig population, Mondale was hired to hold the animals as the doctor plunged the needle in. "I can still see him," says retired farmer Leonard Madetzke. "The pigs'd be shaking and kicking, and he'd be covered with mud from running around trying to catch them." At 17, he was hired as a pea-lice inspector in the nearby town of Blue Earth.

By high school Fritz Mondale had begun to reveal the qualities of compassion and leadership that his father had hoped to instill in him. "I took from my mother and father a lot of what's in me today," he says. "From them I got the love of a strong family and strong faith, the almost mystical belief in education and the necessity of learning, the anger at social injustice and commitment to civil rights."

"I had a profoundly retarded daughter named Patsy, who couldn't be left alone," says neighbor Caroline Rhoda. "When I'd drive in from the farm to go to the store where he worked, I'd leave Patsy in the car. Fritz would always come out to the car and talk to Patsy, and even though she couldn't respond he would always sing her a ditty. Few people that young would ever take the time, but he did."

The mid-1940s marked the emergence of Mondale's political ideology: a liberal-populist philosophy fostered by his father. He graduated from high school in 1946 and went off to St. Paul's Macalester College, returning two years later to Elmore as an organizer for the Senate campaign of Mayor Hubert Humphrey. By then Theodore Mondale had suffered a debilitating heart attack, and the Mondale clan had moved to St. James, 50 miles away, where his father died in 1948. After a shortage of cash forced him to drop out of college for a year, Fritz graduated cum laude in 1951 from the University of Minnesota, where he also was awarded a law degree in 1956.

Though Walter Mondale had fallen under the powerful influence of a new mentor—Humphrey—both his brothers insist that the Reverend Mondale's guidance has never waned in his life. "My father had no experience in the political world," notes Pete Mondale. "But he was a tremendous optimist who believed in social transformation. That rubbed off on Fritz." His Scottish-American mother left enduring memories of how adversity may be handled with grace and spirit. "She was a small-town girl and a very strong person," says Fritz. "I'll never know how she accomplished what she did." Claribel spent the last years of her life teaching music in St. Paul, Minn. and died in 1967.

Vice-President Mondale went back to Elmore in 1978 for a Fritz Mondale Day gala that Fritz' hometown buddies remember well. Four helicopters set down on the old football field, and the Veep, wife Joan and son Teddy stepped out, surrounded by Secret Service men. On Main Street he waved to Patsy Rhoda—the retarded girl of years ago—now 42. Later he spied a group of classmates sitting on the lawn of his high school. "He grabbed a cowboy hat off somebody's head, put it on, took off his coat and tie and sat down with us," remembers Howard Lyon. "The Secret Service couldn't find him for 10 minutes, though they walked by him several times. He loved it!" Come November, fate and the voters may summon Walter F. Mondale to the highest office in the land, yet in Elmore they will always remember him with hometown pride as Fritz the prankish preacher's son.

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