Friday, May 29, 2009

Dick Pomeroy: Eulogy for an old-style newsman

By Jim Heffernan

Scoop Pomeroy: Larger Than Life Even in Death...

I’m sick at heart that I’m unable to attend the funeral of my friend and former colleague Dick Pomeroy on Saturday (May 30) in Superior. Out-of-town obligations will prevent me from paying my respects to his family. Pomeroy, 86, died May 27.

So I will pay my respects this way, in hopes that family members – whom I don’t know personally – will somehow see what I am posting on my blog.

I met Dick when I began working at the Duluth News Tribune in 1963. I was an inexperienced young reporter and every so often this big, blustery older guy would show up in the newsroom, loudly greeting fellow long-time staffers and cheerfully engaging anyone he met. That included me.

In those days, the newspaper maintained a bureau in Superior at 1419 Ogden Avenue, staffed by a woman who handled circulation, another woman who developed “society” news, and Pomeroy who did everything else. He covered everything in Superior – city government, school board, courts, university, breaking news like fires and murders and traffic fatalities. If it happened in Superior, Pomeroy handled it, and in the meantime he’d drum up feature stories.

With a full head of blond hair, something over six feet tall, weight that varied between the lower and upper 200s, Pomeroy was an imposing figure, larger than life. Cheerful and good-natured, he was a boon companion to join out on the town, often in a quest to paint it red.

The first summer I worked as a reporter, I was sent to the Superior bureau to fill in for him when he went on vacation. That was when I really got to know him. Before he left he took me around to meet all of his news sources – the mayor, county officials, school officials, judges, police chief, and some sources at the Elk’s Club where work and a couple of beers went hand-in-hand on an average afternoon.

Fun beat. Dick took off on vacation, and I “manned” the Superior office for three weeks, listening for sirens and trying to cover Superior government goings-on.

As an aside, but interestingly in these times when news can make it around the world instantly, at the Superior bureau then you would type up your stories, put them in an envelope in the evening and place them on a city bus (hand the packet to the driver, bribing him with a copy of the Duluth Herald). Then you’d run back to the bureau, phone the newsroom in Duluth with the number of the bus, and a copyboy would be sent down to Superior Street to meet the bus and pick up your packet of dispatches.

Everybody in Superior called Pomeroy “Scoop,” a tribute to his success in “scooping” the Superior Evening Telegram, which, to be fair, had its own share of scoops. The Duluth and Superior papers competed then.

I could go on and on with memories of Dick, but two stories we worked on together stand out. One was in the 1960s when one of the News Tribune’s own newsboys (formally known as carrier salesmen), about 12, disappeared while delivering the Sunday edition – his wagon full of undelivered newspapers found unattended on his route. Later, the child’s murdered body was found in the grassy field near where Superior Senior High School was later built. I learned of the murder when I made the daily routine checks of area law enforcement agencies, working the Duluth newsroom alone on a Sunday.

There was only one thing to do: Call Pomeroy at home on his day off. Nothing stirred Pomeroy like a compelling story in Superior, and he went right to work on it, gathering every scrap of news he could and feeding it to me on the phone, after which I put the story together. The case was never solved.

My other memorable collaboration with Pomeroy also occurred in the late ‘60s when an AP dispatch from Germany identified a man charged with treason – betraying military secrets to the Soviets – as being a native of Superior. I was sent to Superior to help Pomeroy (not that he ever needed any help) track down this guy’s association with Superior and we went everywhere to try to find a trace of his past. Finally, at the library, we found a picture in an old high school yearbook and somehow, I don’t remember how, we tracked down the alleged traitor’s mother, who had a different last name from her son.

We found her scrubbing the floor after business hours in a café on Tower Avenue, an older woman who clearly had led a hard life. We got in a back door and Pomeroy broke the news to her that her son had been charged with treason in Germany. The woman was overcome with disbelief and then grief, as Pomeroy tried to console her while at the same time trying to get her to talk on the record.

But enough. I haven’t had much contact with Dick in recent years, getting occasional reports from mutual friends on his health problems associated with aging. He might be the last of the World War II vets who made up much of the News Tribune staff when I started.

To me, he represents the end of an era of newspapering (we didn’t fuss much with calling ourselves journalists), his death coming at a time when the era of newspapers themselves may be ending. There’s some irony there.

AARP Talk...

Thanks to the 120 or so AARP members who attended my talk at their meeting yesterday at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Duluth Lakeside. I always get a bit nervous when I have to talk before a group–writing comes easier for me than public speaking–but this group of age peers made me feel very welcome. I was asked to talk about my career as a newspaper journalist as part of this program. Of course, it was really nice that so many in the audience bought my book after my talk as well. As much as I dread talking before groups, I end up enjoying it. So I guess I can safely say that I am available if your group or organization wants to invite me to give a talk. And... keep telling your friends and neighbors that Cooler Near the Lake is still a good book to read and buy!!! (Shameless hawking, I know... but I still have a whole bunch of books left to sell.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Advice for new graduates...

I'm going to be the commencement speaker at my high school alma mater, Duluth Denfeld High School, on June 4th. I've been pondering what I'll say in that 10 minute speech. Looking back at my own graduation from that very high school, I wince at how I spent that evening. If you read my book, Cooler Near the Lake, you have my full, deplorable confession. While my parents–with pride in their hearts–entertained a family celebration at my home that evening, I greeted everyone briefly and headed out to the dump with some of my friends to (please remember I was only 17) spend the evening shooting rats. YIKES! Well...I'm not going to tell the graduates that. But... I do want to give them some hope for their future in the midst of this very dour time in our nation and our world. I'm throwing this out to you.... what advice would you give the class of 2009? 

Send along your comments here and let's pool our thoughts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Credit card companies: guilty as "charged"

By Jim Heffernan

So, Congress is clamping down on the excesses of credit card companies (big banks), at the prompting of the Obama administration. It’s about time.

Let me relate a recent personal experience. I don’t use credit cards much, but I do when I travel. So last winter driving down the middle of the country to Florida on vacation, I used one quite a bit. It was a Chase Visa, and the word “REWARDS” is printed on the face of the card.

Rewards? Yeah, right. Get this reward:

Postal service is poor in the part of Florida where we stayed for six weeks, and the mail we have forwarded from Duluth sometimes shows up a couple of weeks late. It meant I received the Chase Visa bill on the date the payment was due. Late upon receipt.

I called Chase but they said mail the money and call back the next month. And of course the next month’s bill had a $39 late charge. So I called back to explain the situation, reminding them that I have a perfect record with the company (payment in full every time I use it), and they turned me down flat. No way were they going to forgive the late fee, even when it was explained that it wasn’t my fault. So I paid it, and threw the card in a drawer were it will never be used again (I have a couple of others).

These guys prey on people who are sucked into huge debt, raising interest rates at the drop of a dime and assessing huge fees for exceeding credit limits and, yes, not paying on time – even if it’s beyond your control.
Go get ‘em Congress. This stuff has got to stop.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

NEMBA awards–and the winner is...

Congrats are in order for Aaron Brown, author of Overburden, for winning the award in the Memoir and Creative Nonfiction category at the Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards (NEMBA). If you haven't heard about Aaron, you will. He is a talented young writer and his book is really worth the read. While I was not exactly expecting to win an award for pre-published newspaper columns, I think it's great to be overshadowed by this young talent! 

If you weren't among the book lovers of our area attending the NEMBA event today, you missed a fun afternoon. It turns out we live in a rather literary neck of the woods and it was encouraging to see that interest and many talented writers represented at the event. The keynote speaker, Annette Atkins, Minnesota author and historian, was wonderful. As someone who is a history buff, I was taken by her command of history and understanding of the story in the people who make our history. Very good speaker. 

Above are a couple of pics of all the nominees. That's me near the front. Sometimes it pays to be a bit taller–at least it did in this case.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Can Bob Dylan save the county jail?

By Jim Heffernan
Taken from the county jail
By a set of curious chances;
Liberated then on bail,
On my own recognizances;
Wafted by a favouring gale
As one sometimes is in trances,
To a height that few can scale,
Save by long and weary dances;
Surely, never had a male
Under such like circumstances
So adventurous a tale,
Which may rank with most romances.
– W. S. Gilbert, “The Mikado”
So, Duluth preservationists have six months to save the old St. Louis County Jail in the Civic Center. Find another use – and user – or the wrecking ball will drop on the venerable lockup in November, decrees the Duluth City Council.

Daunting assignment. Experts say it would be enormously expensive to rehabilitate the former hoosegow because, news reports state, the entire building is held up from the inside by the jail cells installed when it was built in 1923. Remove the jail cells and, the story goes, the four walls would tumble.

Potential investors who might consider turning it into a hotel or apartment building say the cost is prohibitive: Millions upon millions of dollars – more than it would cost to build a new structure of similar size.

Hmmm. It’s a problem, that’s for sure. And only six months to solve it, or the jail is turned into a pile of rubble fit for Del Zotto’s Pit in Gary-New Duluth. I don’t know if they still dump building refuse there, but somewhere beneath the overburden in that western Duluth neighborhood lie the old Lyceum Theater, Spalding Hotel and other buildings preservationists would have liked to save if there had been preservationists when they were torn down.

I’m all for saving the jail – I’d miss it rounding Second Street in my car. And it is handsome on the outside. Looks like it could house offices for important government officials or deliberative legislative bodies or the Lord High Executioner who sings the song at the top of this treatise.

Clearly drastic measures must be taken to save the building.

I have a suggestion that has worked in the past and can be stated in two words: Bob Dylan. (I’m going to dispense with explaining who Bob Dylan is because everybody knows.)

Who has saved the old Minnesota National Guard Armory on London Road in Duluth from being razed? Bob Dylan. He has admitted attending a rock ‘n’ roll concert there in 1959 featuring singer Buddy “That’ll Be the Day” Holly and two other famous musicians a few days before the performers were killed in a plane crash. Save the Armory folks have used that one influential night of rock‘n’roll history – Holly and Dylan, together once – as the raison d’etre for preserving the historic building. Never mind that Liberace also performed there. (I’m going to dispense with explaining who Liberace was because nobody cares.)

Surely preservationists could come up with some link of Dylan with the old St. Louis County Jail. As with the Armory, it wouldn’t take much.

Of course, we can’t have Dylan arrested and held there overnight on a wild Duluth visit as a teenager in the late 1950s. That could stain the reputation of this revered singer-songwriter, although it didn’t hurt the late Johnny Cash to seem like he was a county jail kind of guy.

But what about the night Dylan and his buddies sped down to Duluth from Hibbing to see a movie that hadn’t made it to the Range yet (maybe “Blackboard Jungle” featuring the anthem “Rock Around the Clock”), after which a Dylan pal who shall go unnamed got hold of some rotgut, caused a ruckus at the Coney Island and was hauled off to the stately St. Louis County Jail and held overnight.

And wasn’t it great that Bob Dylan went to the jail the next morning and bailed out his buddy, who was actually a good lad who had just this one bad experience? What a friend he had in Dylan.

It could have happened. Just think, Bob Dylan inside the portals of the architecturally and historically significant St. Louis County Jail in Duluth.

Save that building, for heaven’s sake!

Oh, and while they’re at it, save the Norshor Theater, where Dylan and his buddies might have seen “Blackboard Jungle.” You can’t let a movie house Bob Dylan once might have attended go to wreck and ruin.

And save Clyde Iron. Surely Bob Dylan… Oh, never mind. They already saved it without him.

Monday, May 11, 2009

NEMDA event at UMD this Sunday...

This Sunday I jon a group of nominees in the running for a book award at the Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards (NEMDA) at UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center. While I'd like to say that my book, Cooler Near the Lake, is nominated because a juried panel selected it, I have to tell the truth. It's there because it was submitted by my original publisher and all submissions are accepted. Awards, however, in each of a number of categories will be given following an evaluation of all submissions by a panel of jurors and those awards will be announced this Sunday.

I join an outstanding group of nominees in the running for an award in the "memoir and creative non-fiction" category. This category includes some great books and wonderful authors for that jury to read and ponder. So, while I'm not expecting you to come to cheer me on or anything on Sunday, I think if you like books and would enjoy a Sunday afternoon at UMD's campus, you would enjoy this free event that includes a book fair, authors' readings, an interesting speaker and treats. It's open to the public and it's free. Here's the schedule::

Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards
Sunday, May 17 – UMD Marshall Performing Arts Center
12:30 - 3 p. m. – Book Fair - refreshments in the lobby
1:00 - 3 p. m. – Readings by nominated authors
3 p. m. – Speaker Annette Atkins/Awards presentation

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Signs of spring...

Many of you blog subscribers live outside of Duluth and I like to keep you in stride with what is happening where I live. Yes, it's officially spring. But here in Duluth we are just now seeing signs of spring. I've included a couple of pictures below of our rock garden area to demonstrate our current level of spring growth. This area pictured receives full sun and we live "over the hill." (It's different closer by lake Superior.) The hostas are just peeking out of the ground and the lilies are beginning to show some green. Various common shrubs are just now starting to show color and growth. 

We've had a slow start to spring, it seems. Lots of cold weather and not so much sun or rain. The last couple of days were glorious, enough to whet our appetite for what is to come. And then...what comes? A cold spell and no sun. We're patient northerners. But patience is wearing thin right now for most of us. We're hardy folks and we weather change in our climate that helps us to weather change in general.  

But... we need hope right now. So... I have good news that gives us hope. In a trip going south on I-35 yesterday, I discovered that the "green line" hit Hinkely–or a bit south of that community. The natives there said it just hit suddenly yesterday. I read somewhere that at each spring season there is a line of green (where the trees are budding and all is green) that moves at a rate of 15 miles per day northward. If this is true, our "greening up" will hit in about five days. 

So... enjoy your Mother's Day and have hope–signs of spring are here and the "green line" is on the move and heading our way!

Friday, May 8, 2009

More on the honking tree...

Hope everyone had a chance to see today's Duluth News Tribune editorial cartoon. No link for you yet but check out the paper version of the DNT and take a look. Cartoonist, Steve Lindstrom, used his wonderful creative talents to portray geese honking as they flew over the now violated remains of the legendary "honking tree" that once graced the north shore highway's edge near Two Harbors. Steve is a great local talent who never fails.

Friday, May 1, 2009

In praise of battle-axes...

by Jim Heffernan

There has been some criticism of the New York Times obituary for actress Bea Arthur because it said she was adept at portraying the archetype of the “battle-ax”. Arthur’s most famous role was as “Maude” on TV.

Battle-ax? Not exactly a description that seems to adhere to 21st century attitudes toward women, that’s for sure. Like “old maid” -- gone, and good riddance.

I hope that the younger generation has never even heard these terms.

But if you are not of the younger generation, you HAVE heard the terms, and if you are far removed from the younger generation, as I am, you recall the day when they were bandied about indiscriminately, tossed around like litter out the car window.

My generation has had to traverse many changes in our society – from racism to sexism to homophobia to “every litter bit hurts.” I hadn’t even thought of battle-axes in years, maybe decades, but the New York Times reference and the reaction to it has brought back the fondest of memories of battle-axes – at least that’s what they were called then – I have known and come to admire.

These were mostly teachers – stern, smart, unmarried woman teachers who knew their stuff and how to handle, for example, obstreperous junior high boys whose hormones had kicked in in ways that cold be disruptive to classrooms, interfering with what we were supposed to be doing – learning science or English or math.

Behind their backs, these teachers were often called battle-axes, just as our principal was called “Baldy,” but only behind his back -- and at quite a distance at that. A block or two from the school grounds you might be safe.

Ah, but those women we thought of as battle-axes. They could drive arithmetic and science into the most uninterested dunce, like me when it came to arithmetic and science. A science teacher I had in 8th grade was positively fearsome. Absolutely no nonsense from anyone. She might have been bitterly denounced as a battle-ax away from the classroom, but you learned what a vacuum was. And I’m not talking about cleaning a carpet.

And a pint-sized math teacher – maybe 4 foot 11 and perhaps more of a battle-hatchet than a battle-ax – could wrestle an adolescent male a good foot taller out the door and straight to the principal’s office (that would be the fearsome Baldy) at the slightest sign of rebelliousness. But you learned how to figure square roots, by golly. Well, I didn’t, but it wasn’t her fault.

At a parents’ open house, she took on my father, no slouch as a disciplinarian himself, warning him that if I didn’t start shaping up there would dire consequences for me. There were. He accepted her rebuke, and took it home to me, where changes in study habits were quickly wrought.

None of these women thought of themselves as battle-axes, of course, and there’s the rub. It was extremely unkind to refer to them that way, but I’m sure they could weather it. I would go into wartime battle alongside any one of them, ax or no ax.