Sunday, December 3, 2023

A visit with St. Nicholas a long time ago...

Written By Jim Heffernan for the DuluthNewsTibune/12-2-23

I suppose those wide-eyed kids meeting Santa Claus that long-ago day are in their 50s now. Could be grandparents by now, taking their “young uns” to meet the Jolly Old Elf to express their Christmas wishes. 

 The Santa Claus some of those kids met back then was actually me, all decked out in a red suit, white beard and attempts at jolly demeanor sitting on a festive throne at Duluth’s Miller Hill Mall.


It was in the early days of writing a column for this newspaper. I thought it would be a good idea to experience things in the community and then write about them. I wanted to ride an elephant when a visiting circus paraded units down Superior Street, but somebody else at the paper got the nod (and their photo on the front page).


But at Christmas time I decided I should see what it was like to be a Santa Claus at Miller Hill Mall, still in its early years and attracting big crowds of shoppers who brought their children to tell Santa their Christmas wishes. It would provide plenty of fodder for a holiday column, my thinking went.


Mall management was delighted; we made a date, and I showed up in a preparation area where I climbed into the Santa outfit, beard and all, and suddenly came down with a slight touch of stage fright. Approaching my grand entrance into the mall corridor, I regretted the whole idea, but there I was, dressed in red from head to toe.


A line of excited kids, their parents hovering over them, had already formed, awaiting the appointed time for Santa to arrive. So, I arrived.


Out I went, mounted the throne, and attempted a few ho-ho-hos, realizing right away that I wasn’t that good at ho-ho-hoing. Whatever else might be lurking in my personal makeup, I just am not the ho-ho-ho type. But there I was forcing ho after ho after ho.


Onward. Sitting there, I beckoned the first child, perhaps a four-year-old boy still full of belief and excited to tell St. Nick what he wanted for Christmas. Others followed, boys and girls, sitting on my lap, filled with excitement at meeting the Jolly Old Elf who would be invading their homes on Christmas Eve with a bagful of toys. Yeah, right.


As always happens, some of the younger ones were afraid of me, and I don’t blame them. What they didn’t know was I was just as afraid of them.


It began to occur to me that many of the kids were hoping for gifts their families couldn’t possibly provide, and I wondered what I should say to them. I didn’t want to promise that I would deliver on their wishes, but I didn’t want to disappoint them by saying that I wouldn’t.


I tried to come up with stock answers but I became more and more uncomfortable with the whole scene. It’s hard to be jolly when you’re not, and actually not that good at it in the first place.


But the line grew longer, as did the afternoon. I began to feel warm, even hot and sweaty (except for cold feet), as I welcomed child after child to the open arms and hard knee of a fake fake Santa. I can’t recall how long a Santa session I had committed myself to. I supposed the “real” mall Santa had taken the whole afternoon off, the scoundrel.


I wondered, too, if he had been using the same white beard that I had strapped on and if it might be full of cold germs or dreaded flu. Can you catch pneumonia from a borrowed beard? Could bubonic plague be far behind? What if my nose starts to run? Still, the kids kept lining up.


“Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas,” I kept repeating as kid after kid descended from my knee and another mounted it. “What would you like for Christmas?” I’d open with each one, and many of them would tell me some outlandish thing I knew they wouldn’t get and I felt sorry for them.


Finally, the Santa session came to an end and I was able to shed the costume and get the heck out of there. My own children were at the Santa-believing age at that time and, of course, we later took them to see a competing Santa.


He’s great, I determined as I stood and analyzed his Santa style, cheerfully greeting my daughter and son and handling the promises just right. I started believing in him again myself.


It was the only time I attempted such a thing, but it instilled in me a deep admiration for the men (and I think there are some women too) who take on the job of Santa Claus each year. It ain’t easy.


With that, I sign off for 2023. So, I wish everyone a joyful holiday and a happy new year.


Ho-ho-ho, and all that that implies.


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

Saturday, November 4, 2023

My first 60 years at this newspaper...

Written By Jim Heffernan for the DuluthNewsTribune/11-04-23

So, they’ve sold the Duluth News Tribune building — an edifice where I spent my entire journalism career. And the deal closed almost 60 years to the day after I started working there in October 1963.

There are so many memorable moments and hours and days of practicing journalism out of that building. It has been a lengthy career followed by free-lancing in retirement. Let me capsule it all in three words: It’s been interesting.

I was fresh out of college with no particular career ambition and recently completed Army active duty when I gave the newspaper a shot. An intrepid executive editor hired me, probably on speculation since I hadn’t majored in journalism in college. But I knew how to touch-type. That might have gotten me in.

Oh, and I was willing to accept 75 bucks a week — a princely sum for a pauper.

There wasn’t much touch-typing at all in the newsroom of the morning Duluth News Tribune and evening Duluth Herald in those days. Many of the men — the reporting, sports and editing staff was all male except for a pair of female “society” writers — were veterans of World War II who used the hunt-and-peck system of typing. But they could be fast.

I was assigned to work as a reporter afternoons and evenings on the morning News Tribune. My first night on the job the city editor, my new boss, took me to “lunch” (our lunch break was from 9:30 to 10 p.m.) in a little cafe next to the old Lyceum Theater and asked me if I knew how to type. When I said I did, he said, “You’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t so sure. My start date in October 1963 turned out to be pretty significant. One month later President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and I got to take part in the local coverage.  He had visited Duluth just two months before. My assignment was to telephone town mayors in what we called the Upper Tri-State Region for statements on the Kennedy assassination.

I managed to reach a dozen or so, and they all said essentially the same thing: “This is a terrible tragedy.” Over and over the same response. I did cobble together a story that made it into the paper, though, and I was quite proud to have been a small part of localizing what was one of the most significant news stories of the 20th Century. My first month on the job.

As the years went by, I had many different roles at the papers. They were, and are, called “beats.” I had the education beat for a while, then the city government beat, some crime and courts coverage and even the arts and entertainment beat when I started writing my own column in 1972.

But looking back today I think my favorite beat was my first, called “general assignment.” You’d go to work every day not knowing what you would be covering, you’d be assigned to cover some event or occurrence — it could be anything from a major fire to a boring speech — and when you turned in your story you were done. Well, maybe check with the cops for newsy items or log in the visiting and departing ore boats and pound out a couple of obits on a manual typewriter before going home.

We used to rush, accompanied by a photographer, to the scenes of fatal automobile accidents, which could be heart-rending. One time I dashed to a late-night explosion of a house in the East Hillside that, we learned at the fiery scene, was being rented by several members of the UMD Bulldog hockey team. They weren’t home; the team was playing on the road. The house collapsed on its foundation, damaging two others adjacent to it.

Over my active years I met every Minnesota governor, congressmen and senators, area legislators, local mayors, city, county and state officials, school superintendents, college administrators, police chiefs, sheriffs, local judges, business leaders (including one bonafide local tycoon) and, as they used to say on old radio, the innocent, the vagrant, the thief, the murderer.

Assignments were wide-ranging. I interviewed Walter Mondale in the News Tribune building when he was vice president of the United States (Secret Service lurking all around) and once tried to interview an untalkative groundhog in Northern Wisconsin who refused to say if he’d seen his shadow one chilly Feb. 3. Throw in a lot of ordinary people who were somehow involved in the news, and it all added up to being a newshound, as a cop once called me.

I spent much of one decade — the 1970s — handling the entertainment and arts beat. That involved reviewing all theater productions, college and civic, together with shows by visiting entertainers (Elvis among them), symphony concerts and other musical presentations. Even opera.

Over the years I interviewed many then-well-known actors and entertainers — comedian Jack Benny, musician Louis Armstrong, actors Maurice Chevalier and Gregory Peck, a couple of Metropolitan Opera sopranos and others whose names probably aren’t recognized by Millennials and Generation Z. Some literary readers might find it interesting that I interviewed esteemed writer Vladimir Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, a singer, when he came here to perform with the symphony. We didn’t discuss “Lolita.”

I chatted with Jane Pauley, who at the time co-hosted the Today Show on NBC, when she gave a talk here to the Rotary Club or some other service organization. I got the impression she wasn’t happy to be here and wasn’t that nuts about being interviewed by me either. It happens sometimes.

The newspapers went from two — morning and evening — to just one in the morning in the early 1980s. We went from 13 editions each week — seven with the morning News Tribune and six in the Herald — to just seven. The Herald died.

Showing the press to interns, circa 1972
At the peak there were probably 200 people working in various departments of the papers. Hundreds of “paper boys” delivered the papers house to house in Duluth-Superior, the Iron Range and Northern Wisconsin. Yes, they were called paper boys, but there were some girls too, and the newspaper referred to them as carrier salesmen. I covered the tragic murder of one of them as he delivered our Sunday edition in Superior, his wagon stacked with undelivered papers left on the sidewalk.

My final 20 or so active years were spent working on the opinion pages, writing editorials and selecting columns, cartoons and letters from readers for publication. That’s when I met many of the politicians; leaders like Sen. Paul Wellstone (who missed a scheduled interview with us when he was killed that day in an airplane crash) and Gov. Jesse Ventura. Wellstone was always affable and Ventura was always gruff. Former Gov. Arne Carlson was cheerful and his predecessor Rudy Perpich, sometimes called Governor Goofy, was not goofy at all, but incisive and brilliant. Very supportive of Duluth and the Iron Range, as was long-serving congressman Jim Oberstar.

Now the building where all of that was based has been sold to the Duluth School District for educational purposes. As far as I’m concerned, it’s been used for educational purposes for a long time. I learned a lot there helping to write a sizable chunk of the first draft of our history.

And it’s been interesting.

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