Now we’re all deprived of Davis Helberg’s wit

John Gilbert

Davis Helberg, lifelong Esko resident, community booster, author, and retired Port Authority director flipped the pregame coin before the Davis Helberg Tribute game. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Davis Helberg, lifelong Esko resident, community booster, author, and retired Port Authority director flipped the pregame coin before the Davis Helberg Tribute game. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Back in 1965, the Duluth News-Tribune had an opening on its sports department, and it didn’t take me long to jump at it. I was in my final quarter at the University of Minnesota, studying journalism, and my wife, Joan, and I had a baby son, named Jack. This was the chance to return home and start after a profession that had become my obsession.

I had a great time at the Trib, joining a sports department run by Bruce Bennett, who became a legend on his own, and we had a crusty old “slot man” named Sid Peterson, and a veteran sports writer named Dick Gerzic, and a young and pretty quiet but immensely skilled writer named Davis Helberg. I had grown up and gone through high school reading those guys, and now I had the chance to work with them.

They all had their characteristics, and except for Bennett, the staff writers worked hard, drank hard and smoked constantly. But we were a tight unit. They’re all gone, now, which seems impossible to comprehend. Davis Helberg just left us a week ago, from the cancer discovered only last January. It spread to his shoulder, and down his side, and it sapped him of his irrepressible energy.

You can find all sorts of written tributes to Helberg, almost all of them about the outstanding job he’d done during 24 years as executive director of the Port Authority. He’s always loved the big lake and the port, since growing up in Esko, and pretty much remaining there all his life. He kept writing, but only release-type things for the Port of Duluth, until he also started writing a book or two. Most Duluthians may not even remember him as a sports and feature writer at the News-Tribune, because he left there in about 1968, a year after I did.
Helberg had a thorough knack for journalism, although he hadn’t gone to college to study it. He was meticulous about his interviews, which was easy and natural for him, because he loved to talk to people, and while he could spin a tale with the best of them, he mainly wanted to listen, and to absorb every word and nuance to be sure he captured what they said and also what they meant.

And he had a clever, creative way of writing. His own words were the best, although his interviews were well-crafted, too, with a very neat way of hooking the reader and taking them right into the story. He was as good as there was at writing about topics you might have had no interest in, but you still couldn’t stop reading.

I went on to the Minneapolis Tribune, where I wrote about sports, mostly hockey, and cars, for 30 years. In all that time, I probably ran into Davis five times, and yet we retained a kinship that was close. I knew his kids had grown up and his wife of 45 years, Karen, had died. I didn’t know that he remarried, a wonderful woman named Stacey, who probably has heard all the heckles Davis got about a “trophy wife.” Davis didn’t seem to mind, and simply acknowledged that it was true.

Davis fought all his demons, alcoholism, throat cancer in 1985, a heart attack in 1983, and had long since quit smoking. But he retained his wonderfully quiet but quick wit and sense of humor, and I can’t wait to read his new book, “Did I Ever Tell You...”, which he was finishing when his energy faded for the final time, and his home hospice care, conducted by Stacey with loving care, came to an end.
That book, which he left with the final chapter unfinished, will stand to give Davis the last word. And at least we’ll be able to enjoy his selected vignettes, instead of being deprived so rudely by his death.
A month or two ago, I was looking for a good high school football game to watch and shoot photos of for the Reader. There were better games, but I chose the Two Harbors at Esko game, because they were going to pay tribute to Davis Helberg. It was a fantastic night, and I know Davis appreciated it greatly. They were going to put him into the Esko athletic hall of fame, I think, but he would have none of it. Think about it, he wanted no part of what he told Stacey would be a “sympathy” selection - and yet, he originated the hall of fame, and I suspect he will be inducted next year.

He settled for being named honorary captain of his beloved Eskomos team, and flipped the coin to start the game. He was driven around on a golf cart, and I had the chance to sit at a table and talk with him for a solid half-hour at halftime, and it ran over into the third quarter. He talked about fighting the cancer, and I told him that I’m sure he loved the Port Authority, but the readers of newspapers throughout the Northland were the ones who suffered most when he decided to go make some money instead of toiling at the journalism craft he had done so well.

He talked about his book, with its wonderful title, and said he was trying to hurry to finish it, adding “This gives a whole new meaning to the word deadline.” Stacey said she’d heard him use that line many times since he learned that cancer had given him a finite time to live, although he was determined to extend it.

We made plans to meet for lunch, and soon, although he cautioned me that I would have to come out to Esko and pick him up. I said that would be easy, and I’d drive some new test-drive vehicle. This was not an idle idea; I intended to take the first day when I had an hour or two free and call him up.
Things happen, work related, family related, trip related, and I intended to give Davis a call on Friday. Then Thursday came, and I saw the item that the longest-running director of the Port Authority had died. Hmmm, I thought, I didn’t think anybody ran it longer than Davis Helberg, so I wonder who it could be. It was like a staggering punch to the solar plexus when I learned that he had, indeed, died.

They’re going to have a tribute to Davis Helberg in November, at Pier B. There will be a lot of stories, and I’m anxious to hear of all those yarns since he left the newspaper business.
One of the things that will be said will be the wonderful example of his quick wit, when somebody learned Davis Helberg lived in Esko and asked, “Have you lived in Esko all your life?” And Davis quickly, and dryly, responded: “Not yet.”
That great line will live with me forever, especially now that we know Davis did live his life in his beloved Esko.

Saint Scholastica senior Aaron Olson catches one of seven passes he caught from Zach Edwards -- four of them for touchdowns. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Saint Scholastica senior Aaron Olson catches one of seven passes he caught from Zach Edwards -- four of them for touchdowns. Photo credit: John Gilbert
 Eddie Lee caught one of 11 passes from Zach Edwards, who was 34-59 for seven TDs. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Eddie Lee caught one of 11 passes from Zach Edwards, who was 34-59 for seven TDs. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Public Schools Stadium scene for some "Oh no!" moments as defensive backs try to cover Saints receiver Aaron Olson with a Zach Edwards pass in flight. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Public Schools Stadium scene for some "Oh no!" moments as defensive backs try to cover Saints receiver Aaron Olson with a Zach Edwards pass in flight. Photo credit: John Gilbert

SAINT SCHOLASTICA SETS RECORD PACE

Saint Scholastica won its homecoming football game with a 47-13 rout of Greenville at Public Schools Stadium, and in the process broke open a tight first-half battle with an avalanche of points and record performances.
Quarterback Zach Edwards threw seven touchdown passes, while going 34-59 for 386 yards. Aaron Olson, his redoubtable wide receiver, a senior from Esko that will remind you of Adam Thielen, caught seven of those passes for 135 yards and four touchdowns. That made it the 21st straight game Olson has caught at least one touchdown pass.

And he wasn’t even the leading pass-catcher! Eddi eLee caught 11 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
The Saints defense did a strong job, too, but the artistry between Edwards and Olson is something to behold. Apparently the game plan calls for all sorts of things, but one of the staples is that Olson takes off and sprints down the left sideline, and every once in a while Edwards will fire a spiral that traces an arc over everybody and comes down where only Olson can catch it.

The show will resume this Saturday, when Thomas More comes to Public Schools Stadium to face the Saints.