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