Ceremony at William O'Brien State Park celebrates the statesman on the banks of the river he helped protect
The rain stopped and the skies cleared around noon October 15, which was good timing for a special event taking place at William O’Brien State Park. Elected officials and others were gathered with the news media to recognize Walter Mondale’s contributions to protecting the St. Croix River.
The 91-year-old former Senator, Vice President, and Ambassador was seated by the fireplace at a pavilion near Lake Alice, for a ceremony renaming the surrounding day-use area after the St. Croix River champion.
It’s just one of five locations up and down the river being renamed, illustrating the scope of Mondale’s contributions to St. Croix conservation. The Walter F. Mondale Day-Use Area is a popular spot at a popular park, providing access to the river and Lake Alice, picnic grounds, swimming beach, fishing pier, and other facilities.
The initiative also includes creating the Walter F. Mondale segment of the state’s St. Croix River Water Trail, between Wild River and William O’Brien State Parks, and renaming an overlook and trail at Interstate Park and the visitor centers at Wild River and St. Croix State Parks.
Devotion and foresight
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler led the legislative effort to recognize the 91-year-old senior statesman.
“Vice President Mondale has left us a legacy of rugged and pristine beauty that countless Minnesotans have enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy,” said Winkler. “Today, we are honoring his lifelong devotion to public service and his foresight in preserving the St. Croix Scenic Riverway as a national treasure.”
Also on hand to speak were Governor Tim Walz, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen, St. Croix National Scenic Riverway superintendent Julie Galonska, and Josh Straka, Rep. Betty McCollum’s district director, with a letter to Mondale.
In the crowd were Senator Karin Housley and Representative Bob Dettmer, who represent the area. Housley was the Senate sponsor of the legislation.
There were also numerous members of the O’Brien family in attendance, whose land donations created the park.
“It was an honor to be a part of it,” said Robin Brooksbank on behalf of the family. “We were thrilled to have the recognition of the O’Brien family and we were glad to be a part of a group of people that was honoring Mr. Mondale for the very same values we hold.”
Public land legacy
“Mondale understood that actions during his career would affect future generations,” said DNR commissioner Strommen.
The state park sits on the ancestral and current homelands of the Ojibwe and Dakota people, Lt. Governor Flanagan said. A member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Flanagan said Mondale was “what a leader was in my house” when she was growing up. In kindergarten in 1984, she gave a stump speech for Mondale to her classmates when he ran for president.
She connected Mondale’s work to a philosophy among many Native Americans about thinking of future generations when making decisions.
The governor echoed Flanagan’s comments, recognizing Mondale’s “vision and forethought” to ensure long-term protection of the St. Croix River and public lands across the country. Walz also praised Mondale’s “dignity and grace.”
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway superintendent Julie Galonska said she was glad to be there to honor a “special friend of the National Park Service,” and his contributions to conservation and public lands.
She said the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which Mondale championed and which he and Gaylord Nelson made sure included the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers, was “landmark” legislation. There had been nothing else like it before.
And she pointed out that the law now protects 13,413 miles of 226 rivers in 41 states and Puerto Rico, saying it was “quite a legacy.”
Rep. Betty McCollum reinforced that sentiment in a letter read by her district director Josh Straka. She said the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was a “watershed moment in conservation.”
Mondale takes the microphone
After being hailed by the speakers as a conservation hero, Mondale took the microphone and dedicated most of his remarks to thanking many other people he had worked with over the years, from his partner in protection, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, to the advocates working for the river’s protection today.
He cracked jokes and laughed, and spoke with love and passion about the St. Croix, his family, and politics.
The crowd was large, and a lot of people seemed simply delighted to see Mondale, to experience his poise and wisdom.
Even the current governor.
“Someone asked me after I got elected, ‘What are you afraid of as governor?’” said Walz. “I replied, ‘That I’ll disappoint Walter Mondale.’”
Sitting a few feet away, Mondale tipped his head back and laughed.