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  

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Telephone Trevails; Behold a Black Horse; & Past Crises affected kids' lives too

Duluth News Tribune Column for today, May 3, 2020.
  Read   HERE. Telephone trevails

Duluth News Tribune Column for April 19, 2020
 Read HERE.  Behold a black horse

A Letter to my Grandchildren: Past crises affected kids’ lives too   

Written By: Jim Heffernan, For the News Tribune | 

This is a letter to my grandchildren, but you’re welcome to read it if you’re so inclined.

Dear Kids,

Long time no see, and it might be a lot longer. So I thought I’d record in this letter some thoughts I’ve been having about the coronavirus crisis; how it is affecting you and recalling some crises in the past and how they affected me when I was a kid.

One of you asked a parent the other day, “Isn’t there any good news?” Great question, and the answer is all too clear. Right now the answer is no. It pains me to tell you that, but you already know. All six of you — as you know you siblings and cousins range in age from 10 to 15 — are unable to go to school, for who knows how long, and you aren’t free to move about and associate with friends in the way you’d like to. I’m sorry you have to go through this. It never got to that point with me.

As you know I’ve been around a long time and I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you about some of the things my generation went through when we were around your age. Every so often, very bad things happen in our world and as you grow into adulthood you’ll likely see more. But first we’ve got to get through this one.

Looking all the way back to my earliest days, I actually have recollections of World War II. I was born right when it started and was almost six at the end. This was a terrible time for America and the world and children were not always shielded from the horrors the war wrought, even though the actual fighting never came to America.

I was younger than any of you are now, but I can remember there was rationing of goods and food during the war. My parents had ration books that were used to buy common things like meat, butter and cheese and even jams and jellies because sugar was rationed. I remember longing for jam on toast, and the time a neighborhood dog sneaked into another neighbor’s garage and ate food stored where it was cool. Tempers flared.

Gasoline was rationed and tires were hard to get. My father sold our car mid-war because he couldn’t get tires. We didn’t have a family car for more than two years.

Word would come through about soldiers whose families we knew being killed on Europe or Asia battlefields. When the son of one of our neighbors was killed, I remember my mother rushing to his mother’s home to console her. The fathers of some of the kids I knew were in the military and away until war’s end. My father didn’t have to go; he had served during World War I.

Small square blue banners with gold stars hung in the living room windows of many homes, signifying that someone in that family was serving in the armed forces. Other banners signified that someone in that family had been killed in the war.

Then, suddenly, it ended. Very suddenly. We children were mesmerized by news of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan. The idea of such a “big” bomb was frightening to me but also fascinating. One of the breakfast cereal producers — Kellogs or General Mills — offered kids “atomic bomb rings” for 25 cents and a box top. If you held the bomb-shaped ring close to your eye, you could see sparkling inside, supposedly simulating an atomic bomb explosion. I got one.

Today’s coronavirus crisis is so huge it is being compared to World War II in its impact on America. Impact is right. But while we couldn’t get jams and jellies, couldn’t buy new cars (Detroit quit manufacturing cars in 1941 to make warplanes, jeeps and tanks), and experienced other depravations, unlike today, the schools remained open.

There’s a lot more to tell about World War II but it’s time to move on to the next crisis. The immediate post-war years seemed wonderful. America was coming back. No rationing. New cars driving by. Everybody seemed happy. Armed services personnel returned home. But it was brief.

When I was still in elementary school along came another war. I had to ask my older brother where Korea was. I’d never heard of it. A lot of Duluth Marine reservists found out quickly enough. Many lost their lives in the early months of that war along with others as it dragged on for three years.

Still, life here went on more normally than during World War II. But there were other concerns on the home front, the biggest one a disease called poliomyelitis, usually called just polio or, more frighteningly, “infantile paralysis.” It was a disease affecting children and young adults that could render their limbs useless and even affect their ability to breathe. Many sufferers didn’t make it. Others were crippled for life.

My parents were extremely concerned. I got constant questions from my mother about polio symptoms she had heard about such as a stiff neck. I wasn’t allowed to drink from public drinking fountains or swim in Miller Creek not far from our home. Later I came to know some people my age who did contract it, their ability to walk severely impaired. The vaccine that eventually wiped it out in the mid-1950s arrived too late for them.

Throughout the years of my childhood, including in the war years, we dealt with childhood diseases that no longer are as serious a problem due to vaccinations. When I got mumps and measles, the health department nailed a quarantine sign next to our front door and I couldn’t go to school for two weeks. When my brother came down with a disease called scarlet fever, our family was quarantined for six weeks with my father moving in with our next-door neighbor so he could continue to work.

Tough times in many ways, but unlike today, school-age kids continued to go to school and people could assemble anywhere, in church, in theaters, at concerts, in restaurants. Jobs were plentiful around here. During the war they built ships in both Duluth and Superior, employing thousands of workers. Of course the atomic bomb dropping on Japan ended that too.

Today’s coronavirus crisis has been described by some as causing “the biggest seismic change since World War II.” I’ve lived through World War II, everything in between and now this. There will come a day when you too will describe what things were like in America when you were young. You will talk about this the way I’ve written about historic events in my early years.

We can only hope it comes to an end soon. In the meantime, always remember, kids, that you’re living through a historic time. I know you’ll never forget. But, more importantly, know that these crises come to an end, and better times lie ahead. They always do.

With love for all,


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