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

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