Sunday, May 31, 2020

Little pomp, under the circumstances...

By Jim Heffernan

The following column was published today, May 31, 2020, in the Duluth News Tribune

I was touched by the photo page of Denfeld High School graduation “ceremonies” in last Sunday’s Duluth News Tribune.


Of course, as everyone knows, there were no actual ceremonies in the traditional sense this year, replaced by each cap and gown-clad individual marching across Denfeld’s massive stage alone in an empty auditorium and being handed a diploma by a masked adult, hold the handshake.


Thank you very much COVID 19.


What got my attention most were two photos: The first one of a lone graduate marching down the aisle of Denfeld’s impressive auditorium en route to the stage, the hundreds of seats on either side empty, save for a few close family members in the front row wearing masks.


Then another photo showed a young woman graduate wistfully standing at the lectern before a virtually empty auditorium reflecting on the speech she had prepared; a speech intended for a full house, her proud family, and everybody else’s. Wow. Who’d have thought it would ever come to this?


Life in a global pandemic.


As I perused the photos, my thoughts raced back to my own high school graduation on that same stage, in that same beautiful auditorium oh so many years ago now. In those days the entire graduating class was seated on the stage, facing the audience of well-wishers.


Denfeld’s stage is one of the biggest anywhere, designed that way, I was once told, to be able to hold an entire class of graduates. There were around 330 in my class in 1957 who marched in to the familiar Pomp and Circumstance theme emanating from the huge Denfeld pipe organ. It was at a time when America had entered a period of prosperity and optimism following World War II. Our prospects were limitless, it seemed.


My prospects were uncertain. I hadn’t given the next phase of my life much thought. I was, and still am, a take it one day at a time kind of person and hadn’t planned for the “real world” lurking outside of that wonderful venue for a graduation ceremony.


I don’t recall what our commencement guest speaker said. Does anyone ever recall what the guest speaker said at their high school graduation? I was honored a few years ago to BE the guest speaker at a Denfeld commencement, and even I don’t recall what I said. I hope the kids in that class followed my advice, whatever it might have been. I’m sure it was positive. They all are.


I recall getting a large dose of real world on my graduation day as I exited the auditorium, still in my cap and gown, and saw a classmate on the outdoor steps of Denfeld, still in his cap and gown, holding a baby. He was the father.


Now I know it might be fairly commonplace in more recent times for some high school students to have already started families, but in my era it couldn’t happen. The school had a policy that if a girl became pregnant, out she went. Couldn’t attend classes. And if the father of this impending child was also a student, out he went too, and good luck for the rest of your lives, kids. No commencement for them.


But my classmate fooled them. His girlfriend didn’t go to Denfeld. And this Denfeld father-to-be kept his mouth shut about it, even through the birth of the child, which had apparently taken place during his senior year. Not a word.


Thus, he was able to graduate with us, cap-gown and mortarboard, Pomp and Circumstance, boring speech, diploma, handshake and all… and does the baby need changing? That child is now retirement age.


Finally, and I related this in a column years ago but I’ll have at it again, I must tell how I celebrated my big graduation night after the ceremony.


My parents had gathered a few relatives and adult close friends in our family home to honor me on this lovely June evening. Of course I showed up at home, but only briefly, my friends waiting outside in a car for me to join them for some real celebrating. So I went in and collected the graduation cards, most containing a bill with a picture of Abraham Lincoln, thanked them all and then high-tailed it out of there, leaving them to celebrate me without me.


Where did we go? I shudder to reveal it. We went to the Gary dump. Yes, the then landfill in Gary-New Duluth where a bunch of gun-crazy fellow graduates had assembled–gird your loins here–to shoot rats. Yes, shoot rats. I wasn’t an active participant in the rodent slaughter, just nearby in my navy blue graduation suit, at the Gary dump on the night I graduated from high school, when members of my family were gathered elsewhere to honor me. It is painful today to think of it. My only defense is I was 17 years old.


Welcome to the real world, Mr. High School Graduate.


So, congratulations to the 2020 graduates of all the high schools, so many schools going to great lengths–just as Denfeld has–to make the occasion as memorable as possible for the grads. Appreciate the efforts of those elders, and be proud.


You are unique in the annals of American education. The future depends on you. My generation has taken care of the past, and not that all well, it seems.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

On wearing Masks: The lone Ranger Rides Again...

The following column appeared 
in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Lone Ranger Rides Again
By Jim Heffernan
When I was a child growing up in Duluth, the Lone Ranger, who always wore a mask over his eyes, was my favorite cowboy. In those pre-television days he was on the radio right around suppertime, and my family would listen on the kitchen radio as we ate.

Each segment of the Lone Ranger ended the same way. After performing heroic deeds with his faithful companion, Tonto, the two of them would ride off — into the sunset in our imaginations — to the tune of the stirring William Tell overture, and some character left behind would ask: “Who IS that masked man,” and a companion would say, “That’s the Lone Ranger,” as the music swelled into a crescendo behind the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. Thrilling.

For a time, the Lone Ranger galloped through all of our evening meals as we gobbled down our pork chops or chop suey or meatloaf or Italian spaghetti with Swedish touches or whatever. A lasting memory. It was around 70 years ago, give or take.

Segue to the present: Of course the mask of the masked rider of the plains covered his eyes, leaving his mouth available for dialogue. Now I’m wearing a mask that covers the lower half of my face, my eyes free to gaze on a pandemic-stricken world more perilous than anything the Lone Ranger ever faced. At least he could see the bad guys.

I have a multi colored mask donated by a friend who is handy on the sewing machine. I wear it when I move about in public, which isn’t much, but enough to notice that, if I am in a store, many of my fellow-shoppers are not wearing masks. These are often serious-seeming men who look like they believe they could fight off with their fists or maybe a gun any corona virus or anybody or anything else that might challenge them to cover their mouths.

And there I am with my cute little blue-and-white cloth mask, trying to stay a safe six feet away from these unmasked riders of the purple rage. And it makes me feel like a chicken. Yes, a dreaded chicken, a fraidy cat.

I don’t know if the appellation “chicken” carries the weight in did in my Lone Ranger days and beyond into the teen years. But no male — this is totally male, no females involved — could survive comfortably among his peers if he was known to be a chicken.

It was quite easy to become known as a chicken. All you had to do is back down from the threats of a bully in a schoolyard confrontation. Chicken for life. Most boys are pretty scared when confronted with schoolyard fisticuffs but many will go through with it because they don’t want to appear to be — yup, here it is — a chicken.

I managed to make it through my youth with my reputation intact just by avoiding confrontations. I don’t think anyone I knew thought of me as a chicken, whatever else they might have thought of me.

So now, for the first time in my long life, I feel like a chicken when I’m out and about during this pandemic wearing a protective mask when so many others are not. Macho men aren’t the only ones. Many women avoid wearing them too, although unscientific research (entirely my observations) indicates more males eschew masks than females.

There’s irony in the fact that people wearing these makeshift masks are protecting others around them from being sprayed with COVID19 should an infected mask-wearer cough, sneeze or even breathe in the under-six-feet vicinity of people.

What strange challenges this pandemic is presenting all of us. And now it’s even become political with claims that people wearing masks are anti-Trump and those who don’t wear them support the president. Could be. I know of one case where it’s absolutely true.

We all wonder where all this will end. Will it end with a wonder drug that knocks it out of everyone? Will it end at the cemetery for far too many people, just as it already has? Will it end, as the poet said, not with a bang but a whimper?

No answers yet, of course. In the meantime, I’ll keep wearing a mask out in the hostile world, imagining that somebody, somewhere might say as I plod away, “Who IS that masked man?” And the answer might be, “Just some lily-livered, chicken-hearted geezer who’s afraid of his own shadow and a little corona virus you can’t even see.”

Hi-yo Silver…away.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at