After 10 women perish in dorm fire, VP Mondale inspired community

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Greg Markley

By Greg Markley

During the 1976 election, it was said that, like a horse, the Democratic ticket was “stronger on its hind legs than its front legs.” After all: Jimmy Carter was a one-term governor of a small Southern state with little time in full-time public service. Mondale, of Minnesota, was an eight-year U.S. senator and had been Attorney General of Minnesota (1960-1964).

Mondale’s experience led him to be a trailblazing vice president from 1977-1981. His experience and ties with U.S. senators advanced the president’s programs. He died in April 2021 at age 93, in Minneapolis. He was both competent in the White House and motivational in his speeches. After a tragedy at Providence (RI) College, he helped students and faculty recall their “school spirit.”

A Catholic school with approximately 4,800 students today, but fewer then, it was undergoing changes to academics and physical plant. On December 13, 1977, many students were around though graduation was nearing. In Aquinas Hall, students were covering the walls and lights; two girls created a manger out of cardboard and paper.

The Center for Fire Research Reports that from January 2020 to May 1, 2021, a total of 92 fatal fires have occurred on a campus, in Greek housing or in off-campus housing within three-miles of a campus. Additionally, of the 92 files documented: 14 were intentionally set; 38 were accidental; and 40 were without a definable cause.
 At Providence College, dorm residents were using a high-intensity lamp to highlight a Nativity scene. Around 3 a.m. (don’t forget cell phones were not invented yet) firefighters were called. But in the 38 minutes before a fire truck arrived, 10 young women died. Eight deaths were from smoke inhalation and two from jumping out of a fourth-story window trying at the last minute to save themselves.

“I still find it hard to talk about,” Father Brian Shanley, O.P. (then a student) said to The Cowl, PC’s student newspaper. “I remember the night vividly, and I remember the incredible sadness that just descended on the campus and I remember the next day they cancelled classes and brought us to Alumni Hall and Father Peterson (the Colleges’ president at that time) and the mass and preached. I don’t remember what he said but remember sitting there thinking that we’re going to get through this, and that not all is lost.”

Rhode Island’s senior U.S. Senator John Pastore invited the vice president because the Aquinas tragedy impacted Providence College. He told Mondale to focus on the future and the fact that PC was growing with natural attention for its academic innovations yet with difficult tours.

Ken Moskowitz, who served as a press aide to Ambassador Mondale while in Toyko, Japan, saluted his calmness when dealing with media and the public. “He was the most centered. Since he had no personal craving to be on TV or interviewed in the press, approach would rely on our recommendation without whether to accept a request. When taping a statement for the media, I don’t believe we ever did a reshoot because vanity never factored in the decision media.”

Mondale is considered the most successful vice president in that he worked beyond the ideas that Carter gave out to implement. He then got her with senators as he knew them from his elected days. He was personable, not against compromise and a good teammate. He deployed the strategies/tactics to survive in ways the somewhat inept president he served did not. (Another powerful VP was Dick Cheney; he knew how to broaden his portfolio, but he made occasional errors.)

 Mondale has been sort of a TV quiz show trivia question ever since he was slaughtered in both popular “people” votes and Electorals in 1984. But he had a richer background than most people know: doing fine work in the Senate for eight years, serving as attorney who supported both justice and mercy; and serving U.S. Ambassador to Japan when rogue American GIs raped a 12-year-old girl and created an international scandal. But, he calmed people down just as he did at his talk in Rhode Island six months after the 10 young women died.

In his 93 years, Walter F. Mondale kept the faith and made many accomplishments for Minnesota, the U.S., and the world. He was not as famous or transformational as President Reagan, naturally. But he knew something quite important. Even as a dorm named for St. Thomas Aquinas was being repaired he may have said: “There is nothing on this earth more prized than true friendship.” Except maybe a horse with hide legs stronger than front ones.

About Greg Markley:

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 10 years.   gm.markley@charter.net

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