Saturday, October 17, 2020

Possible Old Central sale revives rivalry tales...

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune, October 17, 2020

So, the Duluth School Board is going about selling Historic Old Central High School. Whew. I have pretty strong feelings about that.


Some history of my own: I’m an old (I’ll say) Denfeld boy. In my childhood, growing up in the West End (now Lincoln Park), I wanted two things in life: To go to Denfeld and to go to heaven. So far I have achieved just one of them and lately I’ve been wondering about the other.


I went to Denfeld in the mid-1950s when the rivalry between Denfeld and Central was at its height. We hated Central. We despised Central. We loathed Central. I’m running out of verbs.


It’s safe to say that the kids at Central felt the same way about Denfeld.


At an early age I learned a saying that sticks with me today. It’s like a sports cheer: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, all good people go to heaven, when they get there they will yell: Central, Central, go to….” Well, you know. This is a family newspaper. Hades doesn’t rhyme with yell.


The extreme rivalry between Denfeld and Central achieved a fever pitch each autumn with the annual Denfeld-Central football game at Public Schools Stadium, out there in West Duluth right next to Denfeld. In fact, while it was supposed to be for all public schools, we Denfeldites claimed it as our own.


When the Central football team and fans showed up for the annual game, we felt they were invading our territory.


For reasons I can’t fathom today, the powers that were in Duluth Public Schools would schedule the Denfeld-Central game as close to Halloween as possible to assure mutual destruction and the spirit of mischief among students at each school. Paint would be used at times to deface each other’s buildings. Cops were on alert.


Lunchtime raids by marauding students from both schools on each campus in crepe paper-decorated cars in each school’s colors — Denfeld was maroon and gold; Central red and white — on the day of the big game drew disgusting jeers and taunts by students on the raided campus. Middle fingers raised and aimed in both directions were common.


In the morning, the schools held “pep” assemblies in their auditoriums to put everyone in the frenzied mood. Halls in the schools were decorated in school colors and posters encouraging victory in the game were plastered everywhere. Little or no learning took place. This was war.


It was all very exciting. Fun, actually. High school in Duluth in a time long past. What about East? East didn’t count. Just a bunch of cake eaters whose school had only been founded as a high school in the early ‘50s. Not enough time for traditions, rivalries and blind hatred to develop. (Don’t get angry, East. Fine school; educated my kids.) Morgan Park and Cathedral were just too small. Besides, they didn’t have clock towers.


Denfeld and Central were the big show. Hunters vs. Trojans. John Vucinovich, Central’s coach, vs. Walt Hunting, Denfeld’s. Both were legendary.


In those days, Public Schools Stadium had stands facing each other with the football field separating them. Good thing. The animosity could have led to serious confrontations if the opposing loyalists were mixed. If memory serves (and so often it doesn’t) the two schools alternated sides of the field each year.


Down in front girl cheerleaders clad in their school colors would lead the crowd into a frenzy. “Hurrah for the red and white,” the cheerleaders for Central would sing. On the Denfeld side, “One, two, three, four…” Well maybe not that but “Roll on to victory..,” and “When the Denfeld Hunters fall in line they’re gonna win this game another time” led by the maroon and gold-clad Denfeld cheerleaders.


The uniformed marching bands of both schools would accompany all this, seated in front rows above the 50 yard line across the field from each other.


Regardless of who won the game, when it ended large numbers kids from each school would descend on Superior Street in downtown Duluth, cars still decorated with crepe paper, horns honking, jeers exchanged, impromptu drag races at corners when the traffic signals changed to green. Pandemonium reigned. Talk about American graffiti. Talk about fun.


So why would I, a superannuated Denfeld chauvinist, so regret the possible impending sale of Historic Old Central, which was converted into the district’s administration headquarters and hasn’t actually served as a school since 1971? I have come to love that building, and for what it has represented for nearly 130 years. Like the Aerial Lift Bridge, old Central, with its imposing clock tower and stone facade, is a symbol of Duluth. I am concerned a private owner wouldn’t take proper care of it.


Several years ago, a few of us from this newspaper took a tour of the building, which included a climb into the tower, looking at those four clocks from the inside and the intricate mechanism of their operation. It is a vantage point that offers breathtaking views of Duluth in all directions.


With my history as a Denfeld grad, loyal to my high school for all these years, I stood in the Central tower and scanned the hundreds of autographs scrawled on every flat surface, put there by students who loved their school for nearly 80 years.


Glancing furtively around, I added mine. And proud to have it there.


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, October 3, 2020

Plenty of presidential visits here in the past...

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune, October 3, 2020

Before President Trump’s visit to Duluth earlier this week, this newspaper ran a story about how popular Duluth has become in election years for visits from high-profile candidates and their family members.


The story recounted how his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, was also here a little over a week ago, that Donald Trump Jr. showed up and Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump recently made a joint appearance here in support of the incumbent.


I’m sure you recall all that very recent history even if you’re only half paying attention. But the story sparked in me recollections of previous visits to Duluth by high-profile candidates, quite a few of whom I saw either as a civilian or a journalist, and one as a member of the Army National Guard.


Truman in Duluth, 1948
So today I thought I’d recall some of those in the past starting — believe it or not — with President Harry S. Truman in 1948. Truman, as vice president, had become chief executive upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, but was facing the electorate for the first time in his bid to remain in the highest office in the land.


He toured large swaths of the country by train during that successful campaign and eventually the Truman campaign train showed up in Superior, his starting off point in the Head of the Lakes for a visit by car across the bay to Duluth on a sunny autumn day. That’s when I saw him.


I was in fourth grade at Lincoln Elementary that fall and we were told by our teacher that anyone who wanted to be let out of school in the early afternoon to see the president should bring a note and we could be released.


I took the bus downtown with my mother and we stood at First Avenue East and Superior Street when Truman was driven by seated on the back of a top-down convertible, waving at the throngs — yes, that’s the proper word — that lined Superior Street along the route.


A bunch of teenagers on top of the building across the street were hollering “phooey on Dewey” as a smiling “Give ‘em Hell Harry” slowly rolled by. Truman’s Republican opponent was Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York making his second run for the presidency, having been defeated by ailing Roosevelt in 1944.


Eisenhower, Duluth MN 1952
Truman was the first president I saw in person but not the last, by far. He was succeeded by former Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower who was elected in 1952 after a campaign that also included a visit to Duluth. I just caught a fleeting glimpse of him as he was driven a block from our house en route to the airport after appearances downtown.


I knew the route he was to take so I waited for the entourage to come, and there was Ike in the back seat of a hard-top Cadillac limo, waving out a side window to people lining the avenue, his famous grin intact. I had actually seen him once before, still in uniform, being escorted around the Minnesota State Fair just after World War II. (Yeah, I’m that old.)


Our next president, John F. Kennedy, had campaigned in the area in 1960 but he also showed up in Duluth as president in September 1963 when he was gearing up for his run for a second term in 1964. I’ve written about this before in columns, but, briefly, I was a member of a Duluth-based Army National Guard unit that was activated for the visit of our commander in chief.


We were lining Superior Street but I was ordered to the entrance to Hotel Duluth along with about a dozen other troopers to hold back crowds as Kennedy entered the hotel, where he would stay the night. The unexpected duty got me within a few feet of the smiling Kennedy after he alighted from the Lincoln limo he would be riding in two months later when he was assassinated in Dallas.


Onward. In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater’s vice presidential running mate, U.S. Rep. William E. Miller, showed up in Duluth that fall, spending most of his few hours here on the UMD campus. By then I was a newspaper reporter and part of the team covering him. Goldwater was soundly defeated by Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president who had taken over when Kennedy was murdered. Miller disappeared into the mists of history.


Minnesota’s own Hubert H. Humphrey, Johnson’s vice presidential pick, visited us numerous times throughout his lengthy political career as a U.S. senator. He got the Democratic nomination for president in 1968 but lost to Richard Nixon, who had campaigned here when he faced Kennedy in 1960 but I never saw him. 


Also in 1968, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, running for president on the third party American Independent ticket as a segregationist, showed up in the Duluth Arena, drawing a huge crowd. I was seated with others in the media slightly behind the stage and noticed Wallace’s lectern was huge and thick, large enough for a speaker to duck into if shots were fired. That didn’t happen here, of course, but he later was shot and lived the rest of his life as a paraplegic. 


Humphrey returned to the Senate after losing the election, continuing his long-time association with the Head of the Lakes. I had lunch with him one of those times, and he always sent a Christmas card.


In 1976, following Nixon’s impeachment in1974, his vice president and successor, Gerald Ford, was the Republican selected to face Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia in the race for the White House. Carter won. He showed up here in 1978 campaigning for Democrats in the mid-term elections. He spoke in Symphony Hall on a stage lined with Democratic candidates from Minnesota and Wisconsin, most of whom lost that year. I didn’t meet him, but sat with the press in a front row where I noticed grease spots on his trousers. It’s always hard to eat on airplanes.


Carter lost to Ronald Reagan two years later. I’m not aware that Reagan ever graced the Northland, but his 1984 opponent, Vice President Walter Mondale, certainly had, and did. I’d met him before but he visited us at the News Tribune on one trip to Duluth during that campaign. He was over confident in light of the way things turned out.


The next sitting president to show up was Bill Clinton, half way through his second term, to campaign for Democrats. He spoke at UMD, where I was in the audience with other press people. I didn’t meet him but he made quite a splash here, even going for a run on Skyline Drive.


In 2004 Republican President George W. Bush appeared before an enthusiastic crowd in the Duluth Arena. I was there with other media members. We were corralled as far from the president as possible, in keeping with presidents’ lack of affinity with the press. His wife, Laura, campaigned here too, at Bayfront Park. They won.


Which brings us to the present. I will never count Trump among the presidents and candidates I’ve actually seen while campaigning in Duluth. When he was here on Wednesday I had to see a man about a horse.


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, September 19, 2020

Jumping into new worm woes...

Photo by Josef Gorres, University of Vermont
"Yeah, the jumping worms are like snakes, it is said. Fool around with them and they rise up like India cobras being tooted out of a cask by a Hindi seer."
 Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune, September 19, 2020


I have never cared for worms. Have you? Even harmless angle or earthworms seem kind of yucky to me. You used to put them on fish hooks, which was unpleasant to me even at a young age. Maybe that is why I have never cared for fishing. (Don’t get me started on impaling minnows.)


Why worms now? We here in the Northland are being warned of the arrival from Asia — where else? — of the jumping worm.  I’m not making that up. This paper published a lengthy report on the invasion of the Asian jumping worm a week or so ago. Google it.


Whew, as if we haven’t got enough to worry about, now it’s the jumping worm? And, of course, every few years or so we get invaded by army worms  — they’re actually caterpillars — that strip all the deciduous trees of their leaves and crawl around outdoor surfaces ruining picnics and other outdoor activities like just relaxing on the deck.  


But back to the angleworm for a moment. Beyond threading them on fish hooks back in the day, we actually dissected them in a college natural science course. There’s a saddle on their back, or in their middle, called the clitellum. That pretty well summarizes everything I learned about natural science in college. Well, there were very unfortunate spotted frogs too, but we won’t go into that. It explains why I didn’t go to medical school.


And if earthworms are yucky, what about night crawlers? They seem juicier. They show up on the driveways and sidewalks of the civilized world — at least it used to be civilized — after it rains, ready for the, what, picking? Not by me.


Some guy named Walt sells them at area gas stations/convenience stores. I notice the sign “Walt’s Crawlers” as I drive by. How convenient is that? Gas, milk, potato chips and night crawling worms all in one handy stop.


But this threat by the jumping worm has got me spooked. Suddenly it shows up right in the middle of a global pandemic, thank you very much, and it is said to actually fight back if you pick one up. Not a pleasant thought, not that any worm is actually a pleasant thought or not that I would ever pick one up if I didn’t have to. Let Walt do it.


Yeah, the jumping worms are like snakes, it is said. Fool around with them and they rise up like India cobras being tooted out of a cask by a Hindi seer. And what are they good for? Nothing. Turns out worm scientists say the jumping worm crawls around a couple of inches beneath the surface of a lawn, and consumes all that keeps the lawn healthy. Trees too.


So, it’s an election year and what are our leaders going to do about the jumping worm threat? Wouldn’t we like to know.


I imagine the two main sides in this election — need I say Republicans and Democrats? — would have vastly different reactions to the invasion of the jumping worm. Republicans would blame it on Democrats and Democrats would defend them as part of the environment.


But enough. I want to get to a discussion of another worm that somehow enters my consciousness every single day: The earworm.


I am deeply involved with the earworm because I am the kind of individual who has some form of music on my mind every minute of every waking hour of the day. Mostly, in my case, it’s classical music, but other music too, like patriotic in an election year.


So, as I go through any given day (they are all a gift), I might be internally humming a theme from a symphony by Beethoven (the composer not the canine movie star) or “O Canada” or a show tune like “Oooooooklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain” or, possibly, a hymn, “Rock of Ages” (not to be confused with rock ’n’ roll of the ages embodied by the late Little Richard) when suddenly a strange ear worm intervenes.


Enter, lately, a guy named “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.” Do you remember him? The song got stuck in my mind decades ago and now suddenly it’s back in the form of an earworm.


Readers of a certain age might recall it and even remember the melody. Hum along here: “He likes to sing raggedy music to the cattle as he swings back and forward in the saddle,/On his horse — a pretty good horse —to a syncopated gaiter and the roar of his repeater,/How they run when they hear his gun,/ ‘cause the western folks all know,/ He’s a high falutin’, roootin, shootin’ son-of-a-gun from Arizona,/ Ragtime Cowboy, talk about yer cowboy, Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”


That’s my latest and ubiquitous earworm. Can’t seem to shed it. Like on the Fourth of July, I might be out in the garden on a beautiful morning poking my 10-inch flag into a flowerpot and thinking, “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” when suddenly:


“He likes to sing raggedy music to the cattle as he swings back and forward in the saddle…” drowning out the Star Spangled Banner on the Fourth of July in an election year in the middle of a global pandemic, for crying out loud. Arrest this man. Send in the Army worms.


So there you have it. Worms that plague our lives, including this new jumping worm. I’m an old Lutheran, but I’ll never understand how Martin got along on a diet of worms.


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, September 5, 2020

When Tums for the Tummy is not enough...

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune, September 5, 2020

Let me tell you about my tummy. It ached. Oh how it ached upon awakening one morning a little over a week ago. By the end of that day, it had sent me on a journey that resulted in the first overnight stay (not counting birth) in a hospital in my ever-lengthening life.

Why should you care? You might not, I suppose, but take one lesson from all this: Never ignore a persistent abdominal pain that (A) doesn’t go away the way ordinary tummy aches do, and (B) keeps getting worse as the hours of wondering stretch on.

You could be having an appendicitis attack. I was, that day, but it took awhile to figure out. Tums for the Tummy might be fine under certain circumstances, but not when your appendix is about to burst.

Many of you probably know this. I hardly know anyone who hasn’t had their appendix taken out at one time or another. Well, actually one time, not another. It had better be.

Still, there’s the tendency to think the upset is nothing serious. Maybe spicy food consumed the night before acting up the morning after. Maybe not.

So I reclined in a recliner all day waiting for it to pass, and it didn’t. The pain kept getting more intense. (Not looking for sympathy here; people go through this every day. But I never had.)

Finally, after close to 12 hours of misery, we went to a well-known local hospital emergency department — my wife drove, avoiding potholes and bumps, the jolting of which made the pain worse. The emergency personnel were very nice, making sure I had a normal temperature and asking a lot of questions because there’s some kind of global pandemic going on.

They passed me on to an affable young evening-duty resident physician, his first week on the job, who wanted to know my “history.”

“Well, I was born in a trunk in the Lyceum Theater in du Lhut, Minnesota,” I began.

“Not that far back,” said the good doctor.

What he was interested in was my medical history, which is pretty sparse, I’m happy to say. Still have my tonsils, adenoids, appendix, fingers, toes, the usual stuff. Had to admit to two hernia operations a long time ago, “way back in the 20th Century.” Only time I was ever under a knife, I reported.

Still, the pain in my abdomen persisted, and kept getting worse. A CT scan was ordered; they’re often called “cat” scans. Later I told the surgeon I saw next that I do not like cats. She responded that she has two, and we stared blankly at each other.

By now I’m on a bed with wheels, wearing nothing but one of those flimsy hospital gowns that are open in the back and hard to tie. How often do we see on TV hospital shows patients being wheeled down hospital corridors always looking either miserable or unconscious. I chose to look miserable as I made my personal appearance en route to the cat scan, ambulatory pedestrians passing by looking sympathetically at me to see if they were looking at someone who might be about to expire. Fortunately, only my driver’s license is about to expire.

The CAT scan machine looks like a huge doughnut and you are pushed through the hole so the rumbling machine can take a picture of your stomach. The most interesting aspect of that is they have taught the machine to speak English. “Take a deep breath and hold it,” the machine says in a manly, authoritarian way, followed by “You can breathe now.” There’s a relief.

Somewhere in my absence the machine told the medical personnel that, “This guy is suffering an acute appendicitis attack,” and surgery was scheduled. First they had to finish operating on another unfortunate bloke who had the same problem.

In the meantime, a Covid 19 test must be given. With a chopstick size poker a kindly nurse told me to be prepared for the poker to go through my nose “all the way back to your brain.” So I opened my mouth. I just wasn’t myself, but she corrected me and did poke it through my nose all the way back to my brain, which I was pleased to know, was still there. I didn’t know it was in my nose, although that wouldn’t surprise some people I have known.

Ninety minutes later, after testing negative for Covid, I was being rolled through the corridor once again to the brightly lighted operating room where a friendly anesthesiologist greeted me and introduced me to his assistant. They would put me “out like a light.”

“You guys still use whiskey, right?” I inquired. I’ve seen a lot of Western movies in my day.

Suddenly, adios. The next thing I knew I was back in a regular hospital room, the operation long over, and a bright new day had dawned. Felt pretty good under the circumstances with pain medicine being pumped into my arm through an IV. Bless the registered nurses… and register the blessed nurses.

Since my wife couldn’t accompany me through the corridors before the operation due to that pesky pandemic, she was sent home with the promise that the surgeon would telephone her when it was over and report how it had gone.

She — the surgeon — called our home at 4 a.m. and told my wife the operation had gone well, all was expected to be fine and that my late appendix was “one of the three largest I have ever seen.”

Well, how do you like that. Lived all these years with a prize appendix and never had bragging rights. I returned home later that day, although I wouldn’t say none the worse for wear.

That is how the only overnight I have ever spent as an adult in a hospital went. And I didn’t even sleep…the regular way.

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

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A look back at newspaper, city history...

DNT City Editors, Jim Heffernan & Bob Knaus
& summer interns posing by printing press. 1972

Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune, DNT Extra edition Inside Scoop: Memorable Northland events as told by the News Tribune Journalists who covered them, in print on Wednesday, August 27, 2020 

October 1963: John F. Kennedy was president–but wouldn’t be for long. Queen Elizabeth was on the throne of England–had been for about a decade. Fidel Castro was roiling the Caribbean. Closer to home, downtown Duluth was the center of local commerce–there was no Miller Hill Mall. Oh, and I began a job as a reporter for this newspaper.


This newspaper at the time was really two newspapers under the same roof–the morning Duluth News Tribune and the evening Duluth Herald. (A widely shared joke in those days called them The Morning Liar and the Evening Repeater). It amounted to the publication of 13 newspapers a week–seven News Tribunes and six Heralds–delivered to the doorsteps of tens of thousands of Northland subscribers by school kids eager to make a few bucks. 

Now, back to the present, in a couple of weeks, daily home delivery of this one remaining newspaper ends; publication scales back to two papers a week–Wednesdays and Saturdays–arriving in the mail. Of course the newspaper’s coverage continues daily–even hourly–on line. Times change.


Jim Heffernan in DNT newsroom
circa mid 60's

Back in 1963 when I walked into the newspaper building (currently for sale) it was a pretty big operation, employing hundreds in the plant, a couple dozen in the news and sports departments. I was totally unprepared. I hadn’t majored in journalism in college nor had I worked on school papers. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life, so actually being hired someplace was welcome. So was the 75 bucks a week.


About a month before I showed up at the paper, having recently returned from active Army duty, my Duluth National Guard unit was involved in “guarding” President Kennedy on his visit here. About a month after I began my job at this paper as a general assignment reporter, I was involved in local coverage of Kennedy’s assassination. Things were moving real fast.


They were moving real fast throughout Duluth too. When I began my journalism career the newspaper was located where it is now, Fifth Avenue West and First Street. The back of our building, where they loaded our delivery trucks, was across the alley from the back of the magnificent old Lyceum Theater in its last days in a run that had begun in 1891. Across Superior Street from the Lyceum’s imposing facade the stately Spalding Hotel, a contemporary of the Lyceum, still stood, but had recently closed.


Across Fifth Avenue West stood the Holland Hotel, still in operation but its days were numbered too, along with the Fifth Avenue Hotel, across Superior Street from the Holland. The Radisson is now where the Holland was and the Duluth Public Library is on the Fifth Avenue Hotel site, in a block considered the city’s “bowery,” locus of the oxymoronic Classy Lumberjack tavern.


A few blocks east on Superior Street there were several department stores, the most prominent being the Glass Block. Across the street was Wahl’s and kitty-corner Montgomery Ward had a sizable store. A little farther east was Oreck’s and Sears operated in a building that is now a casino. In between were myriad specialty stops offering everything from sports equipment to clothing for women and men, to shoes only, luggage–anything anybody might need.


There were also several movie theaters, and we can’t overlook various bars and restaurants nestled in among everything else. One, called The Flame, was operating on the bayfront at the foot of Fifth Avenue West, site of the aquarium today. It was Duluth’s classiest eatery, always with entertainment–dining and dancing, as they used to put it. Across the avenue, also on the waterfront, site preparation for the Duluth Arena Auditorium was getting under way. It opened in 1966.


And towering over all this were the banking facilities, business and medical offices, some of them where they are today but with different names. What is now Miller Hill Mall was a golf driving range, which went up in the 1950s on undeveloped land.


That’s not all. There were major bustling industries, including the Duluth Works of United States Steel, called American Steel and Wire, employing thousands at its Morgan Park location. Clyde Iron in the West End was multi-decades away from becoming a restaurant. Up over the hill, the U.S. Air Force had established a major air base to ward off enemy attacks from the Soviet Union (now Russia) during the Cold War. Many Air Force personnel from warmer climates found out in Duluth just how cold the war could be.


The University of Minnesota Duluth (known then as the Duluth Branch of the University of Minnesota) had around 2,000 students, maybe 1,999 after I left the previous year. There are upwards of 10,000 now.


That was Duluth in 1963 when I became a reporter and where I have continued an association with the daily newspaper in one form or another to this day.


Not in our wildest imagination at that time could we ever foresee the newspaper business changing nationally the way it has. Here and elsewhere it was an institution, like the seats of government across the street from our building in the Duluth Civic Center.


When I showed up in the newsroom, many, if not most, of the other men–yes, men–had served in World War II. What about women? There were two: the “society” editor and her assistant. They worked during the day; those of us on the morning Tribune worked evenings and nights. Evening Herald workers were leaving as we arrived.


We wrote our stories using manual Royal typewriters on leftover newsprint from the press downstairs. Electric typewriters had been invented, of course, but the newspaper management at the time was not quick to upgrade. I could recognize my desk in old newspapering movies from the 1930s.


Those World War II vets used the hunt and peck system of typing, but they were fast. I had taken typing in high school and the first night on the job I was asked by the city editor if I could type. When I said I could he said I had half the battle won. I didn’t, but it was encouraging.


Yup, things change. About all I can think of that hasn’t, for the purposes of this column, are I am still here, and Elizabeth is still queen.


It’s been quite a ride for both of us.


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, August 22, 2020

Sometimes facts of life are fiction...

 Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune, August 22, 2020

"There comes that morning when no money shows up under the pillow replacing a lost tooth. "

There comes a time in every parent’s life when certain things must be discussed with their children as the kids rapidly approach an age when they should be told what used to be known as “the facts of life.” At least some of those facts.


This is an uncomfortable time for many — I daresay most — parents who have nurtured their little ones from sweet innocence when they are very young all the way to the cusp of the teenage years.


The realization creeps up in the parent’s mind over a period of time and is often put off longer than it should be, or not broached at all. In my own life, there were no such talks from parents — it was relegated to learning these important life lessons on the street, or, perish the thought, in an alley.


This is not the best way to handle it, child psychologists aver. But you can’t blame parents for putting it off because most are uncomfortable with openly discussing certain matters with their own offspring. Besides, we were Lutheran.


I believe it is best in families if “mom” talks to daughters and “pop” talks to sons. Being a pop, I can only reflect here what I have experienced strictly on the male side of the family.


There are two principal approaches to having these conversations, although it likely is not a conversation at all, but rather a lecture.


There is the oblique approach in which the adult drops hints to see if the child already is aware of certain things, such as the discovery of large footprints in the woods.


Looking backward, when I was “coming along” there was much unsubstantiated evidence that we were in danger of being invaded from outer space by little green men and, it can only be hoped, green women, scooting around the sky in “flying saucers.”


I remember my father pouring too-hot coffee into his saucer at breakfast and slurping it from there, so saucers didn’t seem to be much of a concern to me.


Now I see concern about unidentified flying objects (UFOs) has risen again in America. There are rumors they are being investigated by “the Pentagon,” which is shaped pretty much like a big flying saucer itself.


I merely cite this as an example of the kind of thing that young people will encounter as they make their way from early childhood into those pre-teen years when there are so many questions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and so few easy answers. Questions like, if a vampire gets you, will you have any blood left to donate?


There are others too. There’s that certain “jolly old elf” who seems to show up every December. How to explain that is a conundrum difficult for most parents to resolve. I must admit I skirted that one in life. Couldn’t bring myself to discuss it with my children. Let them find out in an alley.


It’s different with the tooth fairy. There comes that morning when no money shows up under the pillow replacing a lost tooth. The situation speaks for itself, no explanation necessary. Does any parent have to sit a child down and say, “There is no such thing as a tooth fairy.” Of course not. You just withhold the change.


Same with Jack Frost. Imagine how idiotic you’d feel if you awakened a child on a cold January morning when the windows are caked with condensation and told her or him, “There is no Jack Frost.” They’d laugh you right out of the bedroom. 


Johnny Appleseed? Don’t get me started on Johnny Appleseed. Paul Bunyan? Different story. Isn’t he from Bemidji, or is it Brainerd, or both? I clung to a belief in Paul Bunyan longer than I should have as a child, but it was that outsize blue ox named Babe that gave him away. Let’s face it, oxen aren’t blue, unless they are as depressed as they always look with those yokes on.


What about the Easter Bunny? I believe children are disabused of a belief in the Easter Bunny long before they admit it in order to reap more candy on Easter morning. No explanation necessary.


I do think, though, when doubt lingers on a child’s part the direct approach in such matters is preferable to the oblique strategy in which the parent “fishes” to see if the child already knows certain things. I’m sure Drs. Phil, Oz and Mary Trump would agree with me. Also Dr. Fauci.


Hence, seize the moment, trap the child in a speeding car or some other place where escape is impossible, wrest the phone from his (we’re talking man to boy here) hands, take the bull (or ox) by the horns and come right out with it:


“There is no bigfoot.”


Then let the chips fall where they may.

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, 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