Saturday, August 8, 2020

When Esko defeated the Globetrotters

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune, August 8, 2020

 So, some people in Duluth’s neighboring community of Esko want to shed their high school’s mascot, and some people don’t. Esko’s teams have been known as the Eskomos for many decades, a slight misspelling of Eskimos, which suggests the native people of arctic regions.


What is more, the school’s sports logo is an igloo, leaving absolutely no doubt that they seek to honor — or dishonor, in some people’s minds — the real denizens of the arctic.


I do not care to take a stand on this issue, but I will say that in any renaming of their teams perhaps they should find a way to honor their rich history in basketball dating back to the time an Esko team DEFEATED THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS. Oh, sorry. All caps. The story is so incredible I got carried away. More on that later.


But first, I can’t see how anyone identified as an actual Eskimo could be insulted by being associated with such a fine community as Esko, but you never know.


As a child I flirted with the idea of becoming an Eskimo myself. It seemed like such an interesting life, sleeping in igloos, paddling around the Arctic Ocean in kayaks, rubbing noses as a sign of affection, spear fishing, mixing it up with walruses and polar bears. What an exciting life. I figured I could withstand the cold — I lived in Duluth. Then I turned 7.


Closer to home, later I came to be acquainted with some members of the actual Esko family, descendants of the founders of the largely Finnish community. Fine people.


But let’s get back to the time — pay attention here now — the Esko Future Farmers of America basketball squad took on and beat the Harlem Globetrotters.


The story is told in a book published in 2013 called “Esko’s Corner: An Illustrated History of Esko and Thomson Township” under the auspices of the Esko Historical Society. The book was edited by my close friend and Esko native, the late Davis Helberg, long-time director of the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth and earlier a journalist at the Duluth Herald and News Tribune, where we were colleagues.


There were several contributors to the book but Helberg wrote the FFA vs. Globetrotters story himself. Here’s how he started out in telling the story given the title, “Just Farm Boys, Playin’ Ball”:


“You might not know what the score was (42-41) or when it happened (January 26, 1938) but if you’ve lived in Thomson Township for longer than 10 minutes you probably know the Esko FFA basketball team once defeated the Harlem Globetrotters.”


Helberg’s account is longer than we have space for here, but I’ll quote liberally from it. As he points out:


“The Harlem Globetrotters today, known for their comedic routines as much as their basketball wizardry, were once among the elite of professional teams. In 1940 the Globetrotters won what was then deemed to be the pro championship in New York.”


Helberg goes on to relate that the Globetrotters, “an all black team (that) had to combat racism and scheduling issues in the 1930s…played more than 200 games a year as they barnstormed the country. And rarely lost.”


Esko’s FFA (remember now, that stands for Future Farmers of America) basketball squad was the first such team in the state, organized a decade earlier for boys who were not on the high school team, Helberg relates, as well as for “honorary and part-time students in agriculture (a definition that seemed to have a certain elasticity).”


Helberg’s account includes the names of Esko players and coaches too numerous to include here. He goes on: “The old Esko gym seated about 800 people. Based on a later story about the Globetrotters in Collier’s, a major magazine of the era, Esko in 1938 was ‘a pinpoint on the map with a grand total of 60 inhabitants — and 1,000 people paid to see the (Globetrotters) magic.’ ”


In one account by a witness to the game, “The Globetrotters led by a point and they had the ball, and then they started clowning around. Time was running out, and … (Esko player) Les Knuti stole the ball and sank a basket from half-court right as it ended.”


Well, there it is. It has to be one of the most unlikely upsets in sports history. And it happened in Esko, home of the Eskomos.


Finally, I’m pleased to include here, for one last time, some writing of Davis Helberg, who got his start not long after high school (Esko, class of ‘58) at this newspaper, after serving on a Great Lakes ore carrier for one season. At first he wrote sports, and later covered government beats and wrote colorful features before joining the Port Authority, ending up as its longest-serving director. He died in 2018.


Davis’ heart was in writing, but Lake Superior was in his blood.


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

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Once upon a time by the ore docks...

Circus Geek,
found on Weird Old Photos on  Pinterest
 Written by Jim Heffernan, for the Duluth News Tribune, July 25, 2020

 I went to a ball field next to Duluth’s Wade Stadium the other evening, to watch a grandson play kid baseball, and encountered someone I hadn’t thought of in a long time, the Wild Man From Borneo.


The encounter was actually a memory of a time, many decades ago, when I realized that about where I was standing watching the ballgame was where the Wild Man From Borneo danced into my life.


I hadn’t been around Wade in a long time, but the stadium itself is now surrounded by open ball fields used by Little Leaguers and others. Some of these fields today occupy the area, not far from the ore docks, once used by traveling carnivals and tent circuses as they made their way around the country in summer.


On the memorable evening that I first encountered the Wild Man I was 16 years old, cruising around alone in my newly acquired maroon coupe with no particular destination in mind. Since a carnival was in town, I decided to check it out. There’s always some excitement at a traveling carnival.


I’ll say.


Wandering past the various “attractions,” I ran into a kid I knew from high school (I was about to enter my senior year) who was very excited, even agitated, like he’d seen something frightening. Of course I can’t remember his exact words, but I’ll try: “You ought to see this guy in there (he pointed to a tent). He bites off the head of live chickens.”


My, my. Being a youth of exemplary character (at least in church), I indicated that I had no particular interest in such antics (this was long before the Ozzie Osborne era, actually in the Ozzie and Harriet era), but my friend insisted. “I’ll pay your way if you’ll go in,” he said. And that’s an accurate quote.


Well now, I didn’t want to appear to be a chicken myself, so I agreed,


And that was where I encountered the Wild Man From Borneo (just off today’s third base line). I’m not sure that’s what he billed himself as. It seems like the description was popular at the time for anyone stepping way out of line and doing something wild and crazy. Anyway, that’s what I’ve always called him, not that he comes up all that often. Also, I cast no aspersions on the Indonesian island of Borneo and its people. There are wild men everywhere. Women too. Even at this carnival.


But onward. Inside the tent was a canvas ring, perhaps four feet high and 10-12 feet in diameter. We spectators stood around the ring in which a live chicken showed up, clucking around frantically as though it knew its fate. Chickens always act as though they know their fate, and they’re always right.


Enter the Wild Man From Borneo. He was bare save for a loin cloth (covering a swimming suit) and he danced around wildly, like any self-respecting Wild Man From Borneo might be expected to, I guess, although I wasn’t that familiar with any other Borneo wild men at that early age.


After demonstrating his wildness to the paying audience, he started chasing the clucking chicken wildly, as the chicken wildly tried to avoid him. It was all very wild.


But once again man conquered animal and the Wild Man grabbed it and — there’s no delicate way to put this — quickly bit off its head. What was left was a chicken with its head cut off and, of course, the Wild Man, who disappeared behind some curtains as we filed out onto the carnival grounds satisfied that we had been, well, I wouldn’t say entertained.


At least I hadn’t paid to get in.


I didn’t know the real meaning of the word “geek” at the time. Today, of course, the word is used to describe someone who seems “unfashionable or socially inept,” in the words of one of my dictionaries. Another derivation says a geek is “a performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre or grotesque acts.” There, now we’re getting somewhere.


Another of my dictionaries says a geek is a person who “bites the heads off of chickens or snakes.” I believe that says it all about this Wild Man From Borneo who was biting the heads off of chickens in the shadow of the Duluth ore docks on a warm summer night in 1956. That’s for the record.


I was unfazed by the spectacle. I can’t explain why. Teenager I guess. It’s a time of life when nothing surprises you when it should. I’m pretty sure I didn’t mention it to my parents, though. When you are that age there are a lot of things you don’t mention to your parents. (And there are a lot of things they don’t mention to you.)


Well anyway, after comparing notes with the kid who paid my way in to see the geek (“Wow. Really crazy, huh? Yuck!”) I wandered on through the carnival alone for awhile. One attraction featured a stage in front of a tent where a bevy of undulating scantily clad female beauties lined up as a fast-talking male barker promoted the show they would perform inside the tent, presumably even more scantily clad. I’m not sure the word beauties applied to all of them. Some had aged a bit, I seem to recall.


Nobody paid my way to go into that one, so I moved on to watch people throw baseballs at bowling pins hoping to win beautiful prizes like pink Kewpie dolls or cute stuffed animals. I didn’t need either and decided to go home, it having gotten dark. Besides, things were shutting down.


As I walked toward the parking lot, I spotted a couple — man and woman — coming from behind the scenes somewhere. He was all decked out in a nice sport jacket and slacks, his arm being held by a female companion who looked a lot like one of the bevy of beauties I’d seen earlier on display, now in full mufti.


The nicely dressed guy? It was the Wild Man From Borneo.


Oh, I almost forgot: My grandson’s team won. I must admit that my mind wandered a bit during the game.



SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT — In a previous column on my affinity for classical music I quoted a line from the late rock ’n’ roll icon Little Richard’s hit “Long Tall Sally” incorrectly by writing “Long Tall Sally saw Uncle John and jumped back in the alley.” Astute readers have contacted me and informed that it was, in fact, Uncle John who jumped or ducked back in the alley after Aunt Mary saw him with Long Tall Sally. There is widespread disagreement, however, on the exact wording (see Google). I regret the error…but not as much as Uncle John must have.



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

Saturday, July 11, 2020

A lesson in how not to be cool...

Little Richard
 Written by Jim Heffernan, for the Duluth News Tribune, July 11, 2020

A few weeks ago, the world of entertainment lost legendary rocker Little Richard, and this this week Charlie Daniels joined him in the great rock’n’roll beyond. Also the other day, Beatle Ringo Starr turned 80, an age with which I am intimately familiar.


Great balls of fire! The times they are a-changing.


I was not a fan of Little Richard or any of his contemporaries in the world of popular music. Oh, I bought Elvis when I was in high school. Who didn’t? Elvis and Richard and others — Jerry Lee Lewis, for example — arrived when I was a high school student and, looking back, it changed everything. But not me.


The reason is that right around then, after surviving “Marizy Doats and Dozy Doats and Liddle Lamzy Divey” as a child, I came to appreciate classical music more than anyone else I knew. I went through the motions of digging the pop music of the day, but my heart was in the classics even as I watched Buddy Holly and Co. in the Duluth Armory three days before they died in a plane crash. I have written about that so often even I’m sick of it.


I suppose my music appreciation proclivities are and were rooted in my childhood-teen-young adult home. My mother was an accomplished pianist with a classical background and also a church organist who could blast Bach from a two-manual instrument through the ranks of pipes in the Lutheran church where she played. It can get your attention.


So when we played records (now known as “vinyls”) at home it was classical music coming out of the phonograph (now known as CD player, rapidly being eclipsed by other advances in technology I can’t begin to understand). And when music was played on our grand piano at home, it would be the likes of Chopin and Schumann and only on special occasions “The Irish Washerwoman” accompanying my father who could do a passable Irish jig. Ah, the memories.


Cool, huh? Not very. In my teens I started making my way through the great dead Germans — Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and others with the Russians — Tchaikvosky, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich — not far behind, blah, blah, blah. I could go on but nobody cares. Almost nobody.


When the Beatles came along I was already in my 20s (around the same age as the Beatles themselves). I ignored them. Then there’s Duluth-born Bob Dylan. A local area kid just a bit younger than me becoming a worldwide phenomenon, but his art meant nothing to me. He’s an amazing poet and interesting personality I came to realize years after most people embraced his music. 


Why all this now? The other night I watched the movie “The Seven Year Itch” starring Marilyn Monroe and a now forgotten actor, Tom Ewell. He plays a bumbling husband left alone in his New York City apartment for a few weeks in the hot summer when his wife takes their son to camp. Marilyn plays an aspiring actress who lives upstairs and who inflames his imagination while being fiercely loyal to his wife.


In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, he imagines himself as an accomplished pianist sitting on the piano bench with Marilyn beside him while he plays — here comes the classical music — Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a gorgeous romantic piece. As he frantically plays, he turns to her and intones, “I’m going to take you into my arms, and I’m going to kiss you, very quickly, and very, very hard.” About then, she falls off the bench.


Great humor, and great music. Fed right into my appreciation of classical music. I’d always liked the Rachmaninov Second.


In those days — the ‘50s — it was common for teenage boys in cars to cruise along London Road in Duluth near the old Curling Club at night when roller skating there ended to see if any of the girls walking along the sidewalk would like a ride home. I know this sounds incredible today, but it was pretty common and innocent at the time. Teens meeting teens.


One such night in summer, a buddy with a convertible and I decided to cruise past the Curling Club to see if any girls might like a ride home. Just as we arrived, incredibly, the Rachmaninov second piano concerto came on the car radio.


I was thrilled. Who could resist this romantic music. Girls would flock to our convertible dying to meet us and, perhaps, get better acquainted. I imagined myself embracing one of them and saying, “I’m going to take you into my arms, and I’m going to kiss you, very quickly and very, very hard.”


Never happened, of course. Even a girl inclined to meet boys in that manner would be repulsed by such music emanating from the car. Not cool. Who are these squares? (In today’s parlance, squares have become nerds.)


It was, I must admit, a hard day’s night. Almost as bad as when Long Tall Sally saw Uncle John and jumped back in the alley. But not quite.


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, June 28, 2020

Duluth statues appear safe from toppling...

UMD statue of Daniel Greysolon Sier DuLhut
created by French sculptor, Jaques Lipschitz
 Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on June 28, 2019

Statues are falling all around the country but I think our statues in Duluth are safe. We haven’t got too many, and those we do have are pretty innocuous.

Take Daniel Greysolon Sieur DuLhut up at UMD. I covered the unveiling of that statue–high on a pedestal in Ordean Court on campus–for the paper in the mid-1960s. It was a cool, crisp but beautiful autumn day. Folding chairs were set up for maybe 200 people to witness the great unveiling.


The sculptor, Frenchman Jacques Lipchitz, whose name was very hard to say out loud without blushing, actually came to Duluth for the unveiling. It was quite exciting to see this world-famous sculptor that almost nobody around here had ever actually heard of.


Then in his 70s, Lipchitz was every bit the French artistic gentlemen on his Duluth visit. I think he might even have been wearing a beret, although I might have fancifully added that to his image in my memory bank because…well…because he was a French artist. Who can imagine a male French artist without a beret?


Anyway, the great sculptor was difficult to interview because he knew very little, if any, English, and I don’t recall that they had a translator handy. I considered throwing out a few Frenchy words like “fond du lac” and “grand marais” to demonstrate my remarkable Euro centric sophistication, but thought better of it.


As the formal program began, speeches were given by the mayor and other local dignitaries as we all listened attentively, anxiously awaiting the big moment when Jacques Lipchitz would pull the cord, the shroud covering his depiction of our city’s namesake would fall and we could see what the French explorer looked like.


When it finally happened, applause ensued, but it seemed that many in the audience were surprised and a bit nonplussed. For one thing, everyone thought Sieur DuLhut was a lot taller than he is portrayed to be in the sculpture. And many were wondering what he was doing pointing toward Wisconsin. And was that a hot dog in his hand?


Still, it was exciting, seeing our namesake in all of his regalia, flowing garments on his body, an imposing hat, a sword on his hip. He looked a little rumpled, as though he had been sleeping in a canoe.


It was considered such an important artistic occasion that Time Magazine ran a story and photograph of the sculpture.


Several years later, chatting with a high-level UMD official about the statue, he noted that Sieur DuLhut, in the heart of the Minnesota-Duluth campus, seems to be pointing toward the University of Wisconsin Superior and saying, “Don’t ever lose a football game over there.”


I always think of that when I encounter the statue on visits to UMD. Come to think of it, I don’t think the denizens of the gridiron ever did.


But onward. Famed Viking explorer Leif Erikson is brought to life with an imposing statue in Duluth’s park that bears his name. I have heard people who know a thing or two about art maintain that, unlike Lipschitz-wrought Daniel Greysolon Sieur DuLhut, Leif is not…well…not distinguished art.


It looks as though Leif, in his Duluth stone incarnation, is holding up his hand to block the sun from his eyes. Really, of all the great deeds of this Viking explorer (like finding America), shielding the sun from his eyes does not seem to be a signal accomplishment, but then those other Vikings never won a Super Bowl either.


Or maybe Leif is squinting from the sun and thinking, where’s my boat?


Which brings us to bearded Jay Cooke and his collie, seated with his leg crossed over his other knee where Superior Street and London Road split up. Jay Cooke was an extremely wealthy financier from the East who was highly influential in the very founding of Duluth in the 1800s. Of course he is blamed for causing the fabled Panic of 1873 that brought the entire country to its knees, but that doesn’t mean you can’t name a state park after him.


The Duluth Cooke statue is one of the few sculptures in existence that depicts the subject with his dog. The collie by Jay’s side is not named, unfortunately, but he or she (Lassie?) protects the statue of its master from ever being defiled in any way. Who would tear down a statue of a dog? Horses, yes, but surely not a dog.


Old Albert Woolson is brought to life with a statue showing him seated outside the Depot downtown. Woolson, 109, was the last surviving member of the Union army in the Civil War. When he died here in 1956 a massive funeral was held in the Duluth Armory, a venue better known as the place where teenaged Bob Dylan (then Zimmerman) saw Buddy Holly perform his hits like “That’ll Be the Day,” presciently referring to completion of the Armory’s restoration.


That completes the list of major statues in Duluth that I can think of off hand. Oh, there’s a Roman centurion in the Civic Center and the mini Statue of Liberty down by the DECC. Very inspiring. Very patriotic. Very much resembles Elvis Presley, I’ve always felt.


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

Friday, June 19, 2020

Juneteenth for the Twins: Calvin Griffith is out

The Minnesota Twins announced today–on Juneteenth–that the statue of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith has been removed from Target Field due to racist remarks he made in 1978 in a speech before the Waseca, MN, Lions Club in 1978. (Read the MPR story HERE) The poem below was written in response to news of that appearance and speech. 

Calvin at the Plate ~ By Jim Heffernan

Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, October 8, 1978 

& republished in 2008 in Heffernan's book, Cooler Near the Lake.

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Lions Club that day;

The chaplain muffed the praying and the Lions would have to pay.

And so when Calvin took the stand, and after they hand dined,

The Lions sat back to listen up, looking leonine.


The subject would be baseball, appropriately enough,

But who could know the speaker would be dishing out such guff;

A simple little meeting, in a simple little town,

Would make the club look foolish and the speaker look a clown.


But Calvin didn’t know that day the ripples he would cause;

He tried his best to stand the test and gather up applause.

But his audience included, much to his distress,

A writer taking lots of notes, and he was from the press.


So when Calvin started talking, and missing not a point,

The air was filled with silence, and smoke filled up the joint.

The speaker tried for laughter, and getting himself none,

He thought he’d toss some spice around, to add it to the fun.


He started out with marriage, an honorable state,

But Calvin said it had no place on or near home plate;

He said his catcher Wynegar would be better off still free:

He didn’t care that Wynegar’s wife would deign to disagree.


Free love, he said, comes pretty cheap for players of the game;

A lad should take advantage, and build upon his name,

And then when extra innings in the game of life are played,

There’s plenty of time for marriage, when life’s a bit more staid.


There was ease in Calvin’s manner as he shifted on his hips;

There was pride in Calvin’s bearing, and a smile on Calvin’s lips;

There was scotch in Calvin’s belly, and a redness on his face,

When Calvin turned the subject to a place known as first base.


His voice boomed like thunder when he talked of Rod Carew;

And everyone was shocked when he called him a damn fool.

Rod sold himself too cheap, he said, so we gave him a bonus;

He really should to appreciate such treatment from the owners.


Then Calvin changed his visage, his voice a quiet roar;

“In the old days players cared,” he cried, “but they don’t any more.”

And throwing out an epithet, the kind we know so well,

He told the stadium commission that it could go to hell.


And hitting Billy Martin–he couldn’t let that pass–

He said the feisty manager could charm a monkey’s---.  

And he said Bill never punched a man who looked to be his size;

He’ll have to live with that one, until the day he dies.


And then as if to top the rest, ol’ Cal went on to say,

The team could leave tomorrow, but it’s still here today

Because we moved from Washington, balls, bats, gloves and sacks,

When we heard that Minnesota had but fifteen thousand blacks.


Oh!  Somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,

But there was no joy in Twinsville, When Calvin G. spoke out. 


Sunday, June 14, 2020

A look back six months: Was it all a dream — or a nightmare?

Written By: Jim Heffernan, For the Duluth News Tribune | Jun 14th 2020 


Return with me now to last New Year’s Eve–six months ago. I know…it already feels like different time in another era. Looks like it was, come to think of it.


Our New Year’s Eve 2019 was typical. For many years, we have celebrated the arrival of the new year the same way. Close friends annually throw a party in their home and invite a coterie of old friends together with some newer acquaintances. Adds up to upwards of a dozen or so celebrants.


Good food and drink, good company, shed the old, ring in the new, bright hopes for the future, etc., etc., etc.


Upon arrival, I was quite startled to see an old acquaintance from way back in our college days. I had thought we were both dead. I’d heard talk of him in the intervening years–about how he’d gone to Alaska and made a fortune in fish. I’ll call him Willie to protect the innocent. 


I spotted him across the crowded room shortly after arriving and immediately approached him. “Fancy seeing you here,” I enthused. “Happy New Year.”


“Not gonna be so happy,” my very old rich friend responded.


Oh, oh, I was thinking. He must think the stock market is going to crash or the banks fail. The truly wealthy worry about that a lot. I asked him what he meant by the dour new year remark.


He took a sip of the red wine he was holding and said, “Well, it looks like there’s going to be a global pandemic affecting everyone in one way or another, killing thousands and throwing the economy into a tailspin.”


Whew, that was pretty shocking to hear. “Aw, you’ve got to be kidding. Can’t happen today,” I responded. “Ain’t happened since 1918.” I was quick with that date because my parents experienced it. “America can beat back any disease. It’s about to become 2020,” I went on.


“It’s gonna happen again in 2020,” said Willie, but I laughed it off. It was New Year’s Eve, after all. Let’s party. I wasn’t going to let that pessimistic tycoon ruin the evening.


“You wait and see,” he continued. “And if you think that’s bad, wait’ll you see what’s going to happen to the economy. The pandemic is going to close down the country and millions of workers will lose their jobs. Unemployment will match that experienced in the Great Depression.”


I started looking around the room for other people to talk to, to ring in the new year on a more optimistic note. Everybody was laughing, jabbering, imbibing a bit, munching on goodies and looking forward to the midnight arrival of 2020.


As I was attempting to break away, he took my arm and said, “There’s more.”


“More?” I responded. “What more?”


Willie looked me in the eye and said, “There’s going to be an incident of police brutality in Minneapolis resulting in the murder of an African American man that will result in major rioting in American cities and even spread throughout Europe and elsewhere.”


I just stared blankly at him with a look of incredulity. “Yeah, right,” I responded. “Are you sure that’s only wine you’ve got in that glass?”


“A major neighborhood in Minneapolis will be destroyed by rioting,” he went on. “Similar rioting will go on in major cities across the country–New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Portland and Seattle. The Minnesota National Guard will be activated in Minneapolis to restore order and in St. Paul to protect the Capitol.”


I figured the minnow mogul had gone off his rocker somehow. “Hey, come on, I responded. “This is America. Things can’t get out of control like that here.”


With talk like that I was starting to experience a great depression of my own. Besides, it was only just talk. 


I moved on to engage with other revelers, leaving him standing alone in a corner sipping his wine and eyeing the hors d’oeuvres. It was New Year’s Eve, after all. Bring on 2020.


In keeping with our annual practice, we all gathered in front of the smart TV as the countdown to the new year began. The Times Square ball had dropped an hour earlier in New York. Now it was our turn to toot our party horns and toast the new year with glasses of champagne.


As the clock struck midnight, spouses kissed, friends hugged, warm greetings were exchanged and “Auld Lang Syne” was sung in typical fashion. I glanced around the room for Willie, but he was gone, disappeared like a thief in the night.


“Jeez,” I said to a fellow partier standing nearby, “poor Willie ˙has really gone off the deep end predicting the new year will change our lives forever after disease, economic collapse and anarchy.”


“Happy New Year,” my friend said, affecting an ironic tone.


“Here’s hoping,” said I, my usually sunny optimism flagging.


The next morning I awoke thinking, did I dream all that? What a nightmare.


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 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