What Do You Say When a 280-Lb. Bear Asks for a Date? Being No Fool, Eleanor Mondale Said No—at First

updated 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was a storybook romance of sorts, this commingling of two names from two of America's great pastimes—football and politics—but it didn't quite go by the playbook.

When Chicago Bears offensive lineman Keith Van Home, 30, first saw Eleanor Mondale on TV after her father, Walter, won the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, he didn't think much about her. But a year later, when he heard her guest-hosting on WCKG, the radio station where he did weekend sports spots, her patter grabbed him. "She was pretty funny," the 280-lb. tackle decided. He called his friend John Landecker, then a WCKG deejay, and asked him to arrange a meeting with the ex-Vice-President's daughter.

Eleanor, 28, blocked the pass. "I said, 'No thank you,' " she remembers. " 'I don't want to know his name, I don't want to meet him, I don't want any part of him.' " Having known a number of football players in her college days, and having dated former Washington Redskins tackle George Starke, Eleanor was wary of jocks who played the field. "I wasn't thrilled with the way my friends who were football players treated their girlfriends and wives," she says. "I wasn't interested in getting into that kind of situation." But Van Home, who makes a hefty living out of wearing down his opposition, persisted. A couple of weeks after she said no, Eleanor okayed a dinner date—and quickly organized a defensive lineup. "I brought about 20 of my closest friends, and we met at the noisiest restaurant in the city," she says. "I spent most of the night talking to the waiters by the restroom."

Proof positive that there is nothing like a little rejection to fuel the cupidian fires, that night proved the foundation of what is now a three-year-old relationship. On Jan. 19 this year, six months after Eleanor moved into Keith's three-bedroom home in River-woods, just outside Chicago, the two were celebrating her birthday on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Keith popped a bottle of bubbly and The Question. "I just asked her if she wanted to be my wife," he recalls shyly, "if she wanted to hang out with me for the rest of our lives." Eleanor, feeling a lot less standoffish, laughed and cried simultaneously, implying a preliminary "I do."

On April 9, nervously fingering the back bow on her billowing, beaded satin off-the-shoulder wedding gown, the Dodge pitchwoman ("Tell 'em Eleanor sent-cha," say her TV spots) clearly, if softly, enunciated the vow. The ceremony was small—only 45 close friends and relatives attended—and took place in the dining hall of the Wintergreen, a home for "active seniors" in Hudson, Wis., 45 minutes from Minneapolis. The location was convenient for the retired Presbyterian minister, Dr. John Maxwell Adams, 85, who presided over the ceremony. Adams happens to be the bride's grandfather and a Wintergreen resident. Fritz's older brother, Lester, a retired Unitarian minister, assisted. Eleanor's brothers, Teddy, 30, and William, 26, served as ushers. Tiffany Neal, 4, was the flower girl and her sister, Kelly, 6, was the ring bearer. They are the daughters of the couple's close friends Barbara and Dan Neal (an ex-Bear who now coaches for the Philadelphia Eagles).

And so Fritz, 60, who's now a partner in a Minneapolis-based law firm, gave away his only daughter. Eleanor and Keith exchanged vows and rings—hers, a delicate gold band lined with diamonds; his, enormous, unstudded and looking, as he put it, "like something I should put through my nose." Then Adams, who married the Mondales in 1955, gave Keith the nod to kiss his bride. Van Home complied in long and loving triplicate, and the exuberant newlyweds strode down the makeshift aisle of dining room chairs. Amidst showers of popcorn that the guests had received in sachets tied with satin ribbons, the Van Homes slid into a black stretch and were whisked back to their hotel for some private time before the evening's reception.

The bride especially needed some rest. Even with the week off at the Heartland health spa—for which she models in print ads—the months leading up to the wedding were exhausting. There was the sex-in-the-kitchen theme shower, which netted Eleanor some sassy lingerie and cookbooks. Then there were the standard routines of registering (her lists at Neiman-Marcus, Marshall Field and Tiffany ran from Baccarat champagne flutes to a Conair hair dryer), compiling guest lists and orchestrating wedding dress fit-tings (logistically difficult in that the seamstress was in New York City). Besides all that, the Van Horne-Mondale connection required attention to more idiosyncratic details. Her flowers, fitting into a scheme of lavender, blue violet, pale yellow and white, had to be imported. Notes had to be handwritten for the welcome baskets of fresh fruit, muffins and cookies that out-of-town guests found in their hotel rooms. And there was the matter of the wedding cake sculpture. Eleanor and a friend, Tara Steinschneider, made clay figurines depicting the bride and groom along with the bride's trusty rottweilers, Teddy and Wilma, a nice addition to a four-tiered chocolate cake with butter-cream frosting. Joan Mondale, 58, made sure everything was just so by constantly consulting a book called Check List for a Perfect Wedding.

There were, of course, the inevitable snags. A last-minute alteration rendered the circumference of Eleanor's dress slightly smaller than that of herself, and two gigantic vegetarian egg rolls scarfed down pre-ceremony didn't help. After spending the night before the wedding in her parents' Minneapolis home—she and Keith slept in separate rooms—Eleanor took a shot of B-12 and ran for 40 minutes in the freezing rain. Then she devised a strategy for fitting good-luck talismans into her already snug gown. She pinned threads of her old baby blanket and a rose quartz crystal from her childhood chum, Wendy Parks, inside her bodice and put on "one particular blue undergarment" somewhere beneath it. It was just about at this point that the ever enthusiastic and efficient Eleanor showed signs of the jitters. "I think," she said just before suggesting that a crowbar might ease the dress's fit, "I'm about to faint."

Wooziness is not one of Eleanor's trademarks. It was she who wore a tux to Jimmy Carter's inaugural ball at age 16 and who, three years later, insisted on roller-skating through the People's Park during a diplomatic trip with her father to China. "I certainly wouldn't say I was demure and well behaved," she once said. At St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., Mondale managed the football team. "She drove the truck with the dummies, put them up on the field, did the laundry and supervised the equipment," says her mother proudly. After graduating in 1982 with a degree in physical education, Mondale tried acting. She got roles in a few un-memorable films and TV movies, but the career looked flat. She did stints as an aerobics instructor, helicopter traffic reporter, bartender, TV correspondent and radio deejay. Wedding bells did not then fit her format.

"I didn't want to get married," she says. "What I knew of most men was something I didn't want any part of. I just wanted to work on my career." Then along came Keith with his blind-side tackle. After their dinner together, he invited Eleanor, who was still living in L.A., to a Halloween party thrown by WCKG. "He picked me up at the airport," she remembers. "I wasn't sure I was interested. I don't know what happened, but it happened." And it happened fairly quickly. A few weeks later she surprised him by showing up at his surprise birthday party. "That," says Keith, "moved things along."

Within a month Eleanor had moved into a house in Wicker Park, a west side Chicago neighborhood. "I wasn't throwing everything up in the air to be with a man," she's quick to point out. "I was thinking about moving anyway; and then I met Keith, so that kind of added to my enthusiasm."

The romance was almost immediately tested by tragedy. Shortly after the couple met, Keith's father, John, a recently retired steel salesman, was diagnosed as having cancer. That December, a month before the Bears won the 1986 Super Bowl, John died at age 62. "Eleanor came at the perfect time in Keith's life," says Dan Neal. "She was a big smile through that situation—she handled it really well."

She proved to be a steady steady, too. When Don Johnson spied her at a pre-Bowl soiree in 1986 and asked her to join him for dinner, she turned him down. Lucky for Barbra. Lucky for Keith.

Van Home, who grew up in Fullerton, Calif., and moved to Chicago in 1981, is, like Eleanor, the middle child in a family of three. After going to USC, he came to Chicago as the Bears' first-round draft choice, distinguishing himself as a tackle who takes a mental approach to the game.

For now, however, he's concentrating all his cerebral energy on his new bride. Standing in the reception line at the hotel, two hours after the wedding, the Bear glanced over at Eleanor and said to a guest, "Look at her. What could I do but marry her? Isn't she beautiful?" In a toast later that evening, he promised the Mondales to "cherish and protect and provide" for their daughter forever. Then, turning to her, he added, "And to Eleanor, my bride: You take my breath away." He took away the breath of most of the 300 guests with his unbridled declaration of love, but most recovered sufficiently to down 132 bottles of champagne and two buffet tables of chicken, mussels, scallops, smoked salmon and fresh fruit. No one, on the other hand, touched the 18-inch-long Swiss-and-cheddar-cheese centerpiece, which had been sculpted in the shape of the rottweilers.

When the couple return from their 10-day honeymoon in Antigua and Virgin Gorda, Keith will start training for next season. Eleanor, on hiatus from her WCKG radio job, will get started on a book project about children of recent Presidents. As for children of their own, she says, "I hope it doesn't happen soon. We're just practicing." Islands are good for that.

—By Margot Dougherty, with Magda Krance in Minneapolis

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