Saturday, September 18, 2021

University days and carefree nights...

dissecting frog cousins
by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/September 18, 2021

I see the college kids are back on the local campuses. Sigh. It makes me recall my own embryonic college days, way back in the mid-20th Century.


I was just 17 years old when I enrolled at the University of Minnesota Duluth Branch. That’s what it was called then. They cut the branch off the tree of learning years ago.


So suddenly I was an official college freshman, expected to wear a maroon beanie — called a “dink” — and demonstrate loyalty to my new institution of higher learning. I didn’t get a freshman beanie. In fact, I didn’t get a lot of things, like: To make it through college you have to actually “study.”


The rest was pretty much fun. Meeting new kids and becoming friendly with former rivals from Duluth Central, Morgan Park, Cathedral and East. I was a Denfeld man (boy?).


Things didn’t go well for me in those early college days, but they were fine on the nights. College was so liberating, compared to high school. In most cases, you didn’t even have to attend class if you didn’t feel like it. Nobody cared. If you did attend, you could light a cigarette outside the classroom door as you exited. Nobody cared. Just about everybody smoked.


All this was very liberating to me, as, I’m sure, it was for the rest of the freshmen and freshwomen, some of whom were serious about studying and learning stuff, to the point where quite a few pipe-smoking boys actually had plastic shirt pocket protectors for transporting pens and pencils. These students were mainly over in the sciences and destined for great things, it seemed to me.


I tried to stay away from the sciences as best I could but you couldn’t avoid them entirely. Some basic math and science were required, and those disciplines were never my strong suit. I was more of an English, history and ballroom dancing kind of student.


Yes, I took a course in ballroom dancing, which qualified as a physical education credit, one of four you needed to qualify for graduation. I thought golf, bowling and downhill skiing were fun too, but never did any of them in later life. Famous football coach Jim Malosky was golf instructor before he got famous.


But back in the science department, things were not so good. In fact they were downright bad.


I took freshman basic biology, which involved dissecting a spotted frog that looked alarmingly like a distant cousin of the spotted frog I had dissected in 10th grade. Same course, really, three years later. We also did worms. Yuck.


Microscopes were involved too, for viewing “cells.” I thought cells were rooms in jails for crooks or units of the Communist Party in America. You didn’t have to see them through a microscope. They were all over the news. The war was cold in those ancient days.


To make a short story long, I muddled through the course to the best of my limited ability, guessing a lot on tests and hoping for the best. Hoping for the best is not a good practice in higher learning. Applying oneself, like studying hard, yields better results, I learned much later in my academic career.


So I was quite tense at the end of the quarter (three quarters a school year in those days instead of the current two semesters). Grades were sent to students by mail so I kept an eye out for the mailman (yes, they were all men then) every day.


Finally they came. I got an A in choir, B in dancing (two left feet) but a D in basic biology, which counted more on your academic record than singing and dancing. Life can be so unfair.


My older brother had already graduated and knew the college ropes better then this freshman. He suggested I go to the professor and say I think I deserve a C. Would that be asking too much?


So I made an appointment with Professor Frogstad in his small private office and made my pitch. I believe I deserved a C, I told him.


A kindly man, the professor, seated at his desk, looked up at me hovering above and said, “Mr. Heffernan, you have no idea how lucky you are to get a D.” Hmmm, They call you “Mr.” in college too, no matter how poorly you do, which is nice. So at least there was that.


I beat a hasty retreat without saying much. I hope I said thank you. And that was my introduction to college. I goofed off a little more and took a break before I came to my senses and actually studied and paid attention to lectures, making it to graduation after five years. Cap and gown, college diploma proclaiming a bachelor’s degree and on with life.


That turned out to be journalism — at this newspaper. In journalism you are thrown in with a varied lot of people: High-level politicians, business leaders, movers, shakers, the innocent, the vagrant, the thief, the murderer. (Yikes! Lighten up, Jim.)


Many years later, I became acquainted with former UMD Chancellor Lawrence Ianni, who learned I was a UMD grad. Since I had a fairly high local profile and a moderately successful career, he decided to honor me with a “Distinguished Alumni Award,” given at a fall commencement ceremony. Of course I was honored but wondered at first if it was such a good idea.


“Have you seen my grade transcripts?” I asked.


He went ahead with it anyway, I’m proud to say.


ADDENDUM: At the ceremony, I had to give the commencement speech to graduates. I titled my speech “The Skin of Our Teeth.” I’m sure the irony of that was lost on everyone…but me.


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

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Swearing, but not on a stack of Bibles...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/September 4, 2021


Driving along a well-traveled highway a few miles north of Duluth on a recent beautiful summer Sunday afternoon, I spotted a home-made, fairly large sign in an unkempt yard with two words: The first was a vile four-letter word starting with F and the second word was “Biden.”


That happened a few days after I stopped at a traffic signal in the heart of Duluth behind an SUV with a plethora of bumper stickers adhered to the rear door. One that stood out for me was a similar sentiment for Trump.


So we’re even. And those are pretty good examples of the rural-urban political split in our country these days, not to mention how crude and vulgar our politics have become.


Of course, here I couldn’t write out the naughty words on those signs. This is a family newspaper (as are all “regular” newspapers) and most operate the same way when vulgar terms are reported. They simply use the first letter followed by ellipsis or follow the first letter with “word” as in X-word.


I think we can all agree that our political discourse has grown increasingly crude in recent years. There was a time when politicians would refer to those challenging them as “my worthy opponent” even if privately they resented the H-word out of them. Or disputing political parties would refer to each other as “the loyal opposition” even if they really thought they were all full of S-word. (Refers to what the farmer hauled another load of.)


When I was a child, I was told swearing was a sin (along with dancing and card playing). Every time you uttered a swear word, Jesus wrote it down (not the word, heaven forfend, but that you used it) and if you had too many on his list, no going to heaven for you when your time came. So I felt guilty as a child when all of us neighborhood kids spouted rough language from time to time. But I was very young and concern about going to heaven or H…. was at a minimum. That, of course, is no longer the case.


The H-word is a funny one. Sometimes it’s a vulgarity and other times it’s OK. “Go to h….” is over the proper line just a bit. But “come hell or high water” is OK under most circumstances. “Heck,” of course, suffices everywhere as a substitute, as does “darn” for that other word (more on which later). But “come heck or high water” just doesn’t cut it even if you’ve been “to heck and back.”


I don’t think anyone — even the most devout — believes H.… or D.… are profane like F…. When I was a teenager, having advanced further into the world of cussing from time to time, there was also the issue of the “obscene” gesture. We all know what that means when we read about it in the family newspaper.


When it is absolutely necessary for a family newspaper to report that someone has raised a middle finger of one hand, the other digits enfolded in a fist, they call it an “obscene gesture.” But is it? Obscene?


I don’t think so. Vulgar maybe. My handy computer push-button dictionary says the word obscene refers to things that are “offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency.”


So, does what is often referred to informally as “flipping a bird” meet that obscenity standard? I suppose it depends on one’s obscenity standards. I haven’t flipped one in years, although some drivers are handy with them if they catch you making a mistake in traffic that offends them. We all are offended by different things, I guess. I prefer to stick out my tongue in response. Be careful though; that could get you shot these days if road rage ensues.


That bumper sticker I described above reminded me of one I saw on a car’s bumper years ago that has become my all-time favorite. It simply stated, “WHERE AM I, AND WHY AM I IN THIS HANDBASKET?” Everybody knows that refers to H…. and I’ve been wondering the same thing myself lately with all the war, famine, pestilence, death and problems finding a decent host for “Jeopardy.”


I promised earlier I’d get back to the D-word. It’s become so benign now that I could probably spell it out in quoting someone in a family newspaper or referring to “damn the torpedoes,” a Civil War statement that has made it to our own time.


Back in the late 1930s, though, the D-word was not accepted in polite discourse and the makers of the movie “Gone With the Wind” had trouble getting hero Rhett Butler’s famous last line to Scarlett O’Hara, taken directly from the novel, onto the screen intact. The obscenity police hemmed and hawed and finally agreed, although the studio had to pay a fine.


So, as Rhett was departing and turned to the distraught Scarlett, he didn’t have to say in response to her question about her future, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn.” No, they had to let him say he didn’t give a “d….”


I’d spell it out, but this is a family newspaper.


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