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Law School Honors Walter Mondale
By Elizabeth Stawicki
Minnesota Public Radio
May 17, 2001
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The University of Minnesota Law School officially named its home "Walter F. Mondale Hall" Thursday, for the school's most acclaimed alumnus. Walter Mondale has been a U.S. ambassador to Japan, vice president, U.S. senator and Minnesota attorney general. But virtually nothing has been written about Mondale's time at the University of Minnesota Law School, and how his education and contacts there shaped his future, and ultimately the future of Minnesota and the nation.

Walter Mondale, pictured with other members of the 1955 University of Minnesota Law Review staff. View larger image.
(Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota)
IN 1953, WALTER MONDALE FELT BOTH THE JOY AND TERROR that comes with the first day of law school.

"For most of us it was pretty audacious to think you could be a lawyer. This was a pretty gutsy thing to do."

Mondale worked hard to get there. He washed windows, pots and pans - he waited tables. At 20 years old, he was already making a name in Minnesota politics by helping organize Hubert Humphrey's successful U.S. Senate campaign in 1948. But it became clear to Mondale that he needed a profession other than politics, and he chose law.

"I needed to have my own skills, my own sense of self worth. I couldn't just latch on to the political system and feel independent," says Mondale. "I really wanted to be in the Democratic Party, but I wanted to be there on terms that if I didn't agree with something, I could walk."

Mondale didn't have the money for law school, so he enlisted in the Army in part to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. With that support and free room and board at his mother's house, law school became a reality. He says law school changed his life.

"I think young people, if they're like me, have a self-confidence problem. You're not sure what you can make of yourself, you're not sure what kind of mountain you can climb. The law school not only gave me tools, but encouraged me that I could aim higher."

His former classmates, like criminal defense attorney Ron Meshbesher, says while Mondale may have lacked self-confidence, everyone else knew he was a rising star.

"I was at some function, and I told my then-fiancee, 'Keep your eye on this guy, because he's going to be governor of Minnesota some day.' And she said, 'How do you know it?' I said, 'I just know.' Well, he made a liar out of me because he skipped the governorship to U.S. senator to vice president," says Meshbesher.

The University of Minnesota Law Building is being renamed Walter F. Mondale Hall, after former Vice President Walter Mondale, a 1956 graduate of the U of M Law School. Former President Jimmy Carter spoke during the formal building dedication. Listen to his remarks.
(Image courtesy of U of M Law School)
Getting into law school during the 1950s was fairly easy. Staying there and rising to the top of the class was difficult, according to Mondale's former bankruptcy law professor Mike Sovern. Sovern left the U shortly after Mondale graduated, and eventually became president of Columbia University. Later, Sovern helped Mondale prepare for the 1984 presidential debates by playing the role of Ronald Reagan. He remembers Mondale the student.

"He wasn't average. One of that very special group - bright, attractive, with a sparkling future. But he wasn't alone in that," Sovern says.

Mondale's class was filled with smart students who would become some of Minnesota's brightest legal stars. They included Mary Jeanne Coyne, the Minnesota Supreme Court's second woman justice; William Canby, who's now a judge on the ninth circuit court of appeals; Doug Head, who like Mondale, became Minnesota attorney general, Larry Cohen, mayor of St. Paul and now Ramsey County's chief judge; and seat mate federal judge Harry McLaughlin.

"He was quiet, didn't raise his hand to be called on very often," says McLaughlin. "After you were there a little while, you realized that was the smart way to go because you could get yourself under the gun with some professor, and they'd take it out on you for the rest of the day for some reason."

Despite the tough competition, Mondale earned a spot on the Law Review where he wrote an article about campaign finance reform. Decades later, that article was quoted by Republicans who noticed that Mondale, the law student, agreed with their stance against caps on campaign spending. President Clinton named Mondale to a bipartisan commission on campaign finance reform in 1997. Mondale says he now disagrees with much of what he wrote in that article. The reason? The education he later received on big money in American politics.

As a law student, Walter Mondale wrote an article opposing caps on campaign spending. He told MPR's Elizabeth Stawicki he's since changed his mind, based on the influence of money in modern politics. Hear the interview.
"The demoralization of the public from this spectacle of hundreds of thousands of dollars of unlimited amounts of money, of selling the White House, selling influence - even though a lot of what I think goes on is honest - the spectacle every day of this money slopping around undermines public confidence and trust."

Another of Mondale's classmates, attorney Don Wiese, a Republican, remembers Mondale as a hardworking student who sparked heated political debates. Despite their political differences, Wiese says he never questioned Mondale's integrity - then or now.

"There's never been a whit of scandal, anything ever adverse with Mondale's name. That was the impression we had of him in school, and he kept that on through his whole political career. To this day he is like that," says Wiese.

The law school is naming its building Mondale Hall - not only because of his political successes but also because of the integrity Wiese describes. Retired Judge Harry McLaughlin says Mondale's integrity was instilled by Mondale's mother, Claribel.

"Fritz was very fond of her. He felt very deeply that he wanted to live up to her standards of the person he should be, or the political figure he should be. I remember him saying one time, 'I wonder how my mother's going to like that?'" says McLaughlin.

The U of M law faculty was so impressed with Mondale the student, it considered offering him a faculty position after his graduation - a fact he didn't know until informed by MPR. Yale Kamisar, who joined the Minnesota Law School faculty in 1957, the year after Mondale left, remembers the discussion about Mondale.

"Somebody said, 'I heard him speak and he's a very thoughtful speaker, very insightful, very clear.' He was somebody high on our list. Then I think the feeling was, 'Let him have some seasoning.' And the next thing we knew he became attorney general," says Kamisar.

Gov. Orville Freeman appointed Mondale to attorney general in 1960, to fill the vacancy left by Miles Lord who was named U.S. attorney. Mondale had just successfully managed Freeman's gubernatorial campaign. Mondale was just 32, and only four years out of law school, when he became attorney general.

Mondale and Yale Kamisar's paths would cross again and make legal history. Mondale, as attorney general, and Kamisar, filed a brief on behalf of a Florida man named Clarence Gideon who couldn't afford a defense attorney. At the time, states were not required to provide attorneys to poor defendants charged with serious crimes. As a result of Mondale and Kamisar's brief, defendants charged with serious crimes in both federal and state courts are provided attorneys if they cannot afford one. The Gideon case is required reading for all first year law students.

More Information:

  • The Gideon ruling
  • U.S. Senate biography of Mondale
  • U of M Law School
  • The Mondale Lectures: Atlantic City Revisited