Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Memories of Mondale include Piedmont Heights 'attack' ...

Walter Mondale,1977 (Wikipedia)
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on April 20, 2021

"I was, in a sense, present at the creation of Mondale as a nationally significant political leader."  

Like every other high-level Minnesota politician, Walter Mondale visited Duluth quite often during his active years, almost always calling on the state’s third-largest newspaper here in Duluth.


In my various newsroom roles at the News Tribune (and Duluth Herald before it was discontinued), I met him many times, causing me to reflect on those times this week when the former vice president, past Minnesota U.S. senator, ex-Minnesota attorney general and affable human being died at age 93.


I was, in a sense, present at the creation of Mondale as a nationally significant political leader when he was appointed in 1964 to the U.S. Senate.


Hubert Humphrey had resigned from the Senate when he accepted President Lyndon Johnson’s offer to be his running mate in the 1964 election. It was up to then Minnesota Gov. Karl Rolvaag to appoint a successor to Humphrey and he chose Mondale, Minnesota’s attorney general.


Humphrey, Rolvaag, Mondale and several others, such as Eugene McCarthy and Orville Freeman, were the stalwarts of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party at the time.


Upon being appointed, Mondale, as was often the case for politicians, made a quick flying trip around the state, visiting Duluth and other major cities. Rolvaag accompanied him. If memory serves, it occurred on a Saturday and I was working weekends as a reporter early in my career.


Mondale’s retinue set up a media conference in a room off the ballroom in Hotel Duluth (now Greysolon Plaza) and we were all there — the television reporters and photographers, maybe a radio journalist or two and me. It was the first time I’d met Mondale.


The future senator was seated behind a desk, waiting as the TV crews set up their lights and got their bulky equipment situated. It was a complicated process in those pre-digital days. Finally they were ready, the bright lights went on and suddenly Mondale called a halt and waved to an aide to dash over and put makeup on his face, in those days needed for appearing healthy on TV. It’s my most vivid memory from that encounter.


All I carried was a pen and reporter’s notebook, and after talking briefly to Mondale I stood back to let the broadcasters do their thing. Glancing around the room I noted Gov. Rolvaag standing alone in a corner taking it all in, being ignored. Press all around, he the state’s governor in their midst, and no one was paying attention to him, Mondale being the star of the day.


I recall feeling kind of sorry for Rolvaag, so I went over to him, notebook in hand, and interviewed him. I don’t recall if Rolvaag made my story.


But as we all are reminded this week, Mondale went on to become a distinguished senator, vice president in the Jimmy Carter administration, unsuccessful candidate for president in1984, ambassador to Japan in the 1990s and revered pundit in recent years.


Mondale visited Duluth quite often as vice president, and this anecdote involving him was told me. I did not witness it. Mondale was a close friend of the late Duluth attorney Harry Munger, a long-time DFL activist and younger brother of the legendary Willard Munger, “Mr. Environment” in the Minnesota Legislature for decades. Mondale and Harry Munger were fishing partners.


Harry Munger told me this story: Mondale was visiting Munger’s Piedmont Heights home one bitterly cold winter night during his vice presidency. Several other guests were invited, all arriving by car. Of course, as vice president, Mondale had Secret Service protection.


As the guests and Mondale gathered inside, Secret Service agents were outside on alert when they were startled by the sudden starting of vehicles and rumbling of engines in cars parked near them. They were unaware of those once-popular devices that would automatically warm up an unoccupied car in cold weather. The agents thought something was amiss, until it was explained that the cars started automatically and that they were not under attack.


Welcome to northern Minnesota in winter, Secret Service.


Finally, I had a gratifying remote contact with Mondale at the time of my retirement from active employment at the News Tribune in 2005. A colleague quietly contacted Mondale and asked him to record a message of good wishes upon my retirement. I didn’t know the former vice president THAT well, but Mondale took the time to do it, and the recording was played at a retirement gathering.


I doubt that Mondale recalled that I was the young Duluth journalist who reported on his appointment to the Senate 41 years earlier, but I’ll never forget that he was kind enough to wish me well as I moved on with my life.

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

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Naughty- naughty on the Danube...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, April 17, 2021

When my kids were kids and misbehaved in some small way, I would sometimes employ the age-old hand signal for “naughty-naughty” (shame on you hand gesture).


You probably know it: You make fists with both hands with the index fingers extended, as in pointing, and then repeatedly rub one index finger along the other. Somehow, through the ages, this hand signal has survived as the sign for minor misbehavior that I, and probably others, call naughty-naughty.


It’s handy, and most everyone comes to understand it as the light-hearted signal for minor family infractions. If a child commits major infractions, like burning down the house, this is not the signal to use. But if the child spills his or her milk by being obstreperous at the breakfast table, well, one extended index finger sawing the other works just fine, along with a dishrag to clean up the mess.


The nice thing about it is that, for fun, it can extend into teen years and even young adulthood, just as a joke. Nothing need be said, the gesticulation says it all.


There have been many naughty-naughties in my own life, like the time in 10th grade world history class when the teacher asked me to name Alexander the Great’s horse and I answered, “Silver,” causing uproarious laughter in the classroom. We were wild teens back then. It was a regular blackboard jungle.


I believe my grandchildren are now aware of the naughty-naughty hand signal too, even if they don’t flash it yet. It’s sort of a family tradition, I suppose. Maybe it’s one of yours too.


But I hadn’t displayed the naughty-naughty much in recent years. Kids grown and on with their own lives, flashing the sign to their own children and so on down through the generations.


Still, I believe it’s an American tradition worthy of propagation and mention, even if only in a midwestern newspaper.


You wonder though (at least I do), is it only an American tradition? Maybe it’s understood beyond the land of the free and the home of the braver than me. Here’s some evidence.


A couple of years ago we signed up for a European river cruise that took us up the Danube from Budapest to Vienna and on through various quaint towns in Germany and ending in Amsterdam, Holland. For the record, they switch rivers at the north end of the voyage, even plying the fabled Rhine.


I have cruised on big boats and river cruise boats, and like the latter the best. A couple hundred people vs. a couple thousand-plus. You get to know some fellow travelers pretty well on the river boats and become acquainted with some members of the crew too — friendly young people who serve the mostly American guests with a smile while spouting various degrees of knowledge of the English language.


You’d never need to flash the naughty-naughty to them, even if they might know what it means. If I thought about it I’d assume they wouldn’t. American tradition, possibly just Midwestern. Maybe just me. Who knows?


Segue to the shipboard cocktail hour one pleasant afternoon on the Blue Danube, which actually looks kind of brown up close. I was standing at the bar in the vessel’s cocktail lounge waiting for friends to show up so we could take a table and have a libation before dining.


The bartender was a cheerful young woman, maybe in her mid-20s, of unknown national origin to me, who was handling the horseshoe-shaped bar alone. I was alone at the bar too. She spoke English quite well but, of course, in what used to be called broken. I couldn’t tell exactly what that accent represented but, being in Germany, I naturally assumed she was German.


As I chatted with her briefly, she was filling drink orders for waiters serving other travelers seated at tables throughout the spacious cocktail lounge. Suddenly, in engaging with one of the tray-bearing waiters, she became very agitated over a drink mistake or something. She angrily rebuked the waiter in a language I didn’t understand but assumed was German. The waiter, thoroughly chagrined, turned on his heel and resumed serving travelers.


She then turned to me again, smiling. Kerfuffle over. But to kid her a little I clenched my fists, index fingers extended, and rubbed one index with the other. I didn’t know if she’d understand what it meant, but took a chance. She grinned and seemed to recognize it right away.


“Do you know what that means in German?” I ventured.


Her response was quick. “I know what it means in Polish.”


Oh, my…travel can be so broadening.

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, April 3, 2021

A brief history of smelt in Duluth...

Crowd of smelters at mouth of Lester River on April 25, 1986.
 Photo by Steve Sterns for the Duluth News Tribune
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

"The nice thing about smelt is all you have to do is decapitate them, gut them and throw them in the hot grease."

About once every decade or so, give or take, I like to recall the halcyon days of smelt “fishing” each April in Duluth. The ranks of those of us who experienced the anarchy and chaos of smelt season here are thinning, even if our midsections are not.


Plus, a few generations of native Duluthians and those who have moved here in the past 40-some odd (I’ll say) years did not experience this unique aspect of our history. It needs to be recorded somewhere. So here goes.


It all started shortly after World War II, in the mid-1940s. One can only imagine the scene in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the United States. Smelt were still saltwater fish but getting restless.


Smelt leadership began getting concerned when their multitudinous schools of tiny, silvery subjects began complaining that things just weren’t the same anymore in the ocean. No more German submarines darting through their waters just off the coast; flotillas of U.S. surface naval ships headed for Europe came to a halt. It was getting boring for smelt.


So their leadership decided something had to be done. “I’ve got it, let’s go to Duluth,” the king smelt said.


“How can we do that? We’re saltwater fish and the Great Lakes are fresh water,” said the queen.


“We’ll adapt,” said the king Fish.


And adapt they did, swimming their way up the St. Lawrence Seaway, which didn’t formally exist at the time but the water was there. The change in smelt biology shocked ichthyologists in Duluth, although there weren’t too many to be shocked because the University of Minnesota Duluth (which was only getting started) was not yet used to big words like ichthyology, which is even harder to spell than it is to pronounce. Those fish scientists agreed, though, that to have their study of fish taken seriously in the academic world they had to have a name nobody could spell or pronounce.


But enough ichthyology. It’s too hard to type.


So those intrepid Atlantic smelt finally arrived in Duluth en masse by the mid-to-latter years of the 1940s but few people here knew what to make of it at first. The few who did realized they could get huge net seines, wade in pairs a few yards into Lake Superior off Park Point two or three times and come back with enough smelt to feed the 5,000, to respectfully employ a Biblical allusion.


Word got around fast. Word about free food always gets around fast. Soon it became common knowledge that the North Shore streams also were full of them and all you had to do to get a pail of smelt was to don hip boots, use a hand-held dip net a couple of times against the stream’s flow, and, voila, several potential meals, deep fried.


That is if the smelt were “running” up the streams to spawn. It was sporadic, but if they were running the take of fish was incredible. We are talking tons. Smelt were running along the North Shore long before people took it up.


Duluthians went nuts as those early years rolled by, ending the ‘40s and into the ‘50s and well beyond. Word spread beyond the city and soon caravans of smelt seekers from distant venues — the Dakotas, Iowa and especially the Twin Cities — descended — and I mean descended — on the Zenith City of the unsalted seas, so recently hosting the adapting smelt in their journey west. Even the staid Chamber of Commerce embraced it.


Many of the natives (that was us) and outsiders also found that dipping or seining for unlimited smelt went well with consumption of various intoxicating beverages, and smelting parties were organized around huge bonfires, many of which were fueled with old tires. This was before the environmental movement got started. Tires really burn well but create a lot of greenhouse gasses, many later observed.


It reached a point where you could stand on London Road at night and gaze across the wolf nose of Lake Superior to Park Point and see, literally, scores of bonfires lighting the darkness on the sandy beach, some even fueled with driftwood. And along the mouths of North Shore streams — the Lester, the Knife, the French, the Sucker (there’s some irony in that name) — thousands of intrepid smelters from the Upper U.S. converged en masse for free food.


The state of Minnesota was caught flat-footed. Incredibly, state officials and political bigwigs didn’t realize at first that this could be a good source of revenue for the state. It took them several years to mandate that smelt fishermen and fisherwomen (of course there were both) actually have fishing licenses. That made the food less free, but didn’t diminish the multitudes.


And the nice thing about smelt was all you had to do was decapitate them, gut them and throw them in the hot grease, tails and all if so inclined. I am not much of a fish eater — you can have your walleye or kamloops or trout or whatever — but I love smelt. I did get caught up in actual smelt fishing as a child early on and then as a smelt partier later, but I recovered.


There was a down side. Eager, sometimes inebriated, smelt seekers plying the shore streams and on the Point often lacked respect for private property near the smelting sites. Many felt, for example, that if they needed firewood somebody’s nearby picket fence would burn nicely. This was very frustrating to residents and challenging for law enforcement officials overwhelmed by, well, overwhelmed by everything. Chaos and anarchy reigned, along with King Smelt.


Most of the activities occurred after dark. Nighttime traffic on London Road in Duluth was — oh, how should I put it? — bumper to bumper (there’s no other way to put it) from near downtown to Lester River and beyond. (This was back in the days when cars actually had bumpers.)


And, yes, there were casualties. Sadly, in many years, there were one or two drownings.


The smelt themselves largely brought it to a close after a strong 40 years or so of offering themselves up for food and frolic in Duluth. Suddenly it tapered off. Now only professional fisher persons net them way off shore and sell them commercially.


It’s enough to make an ichthyologist cry.

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

NOTE: Today's column in the Duluth News Tribune was printed for the last time in Duluth. As a 43 year employee of the DNT, I find it noteworthy that my column appears today. Read that story HERE.