1947

I grew up in Piedmont Heights. My dad was an undersized kid and not particularly athletic, a boy who never participated in organized high school sports. He was book smart and blessed with flawless memory, traits that allowed him to become the first person in his family to earn a college degree. My mom was pretty and petite. Raised by parents who valued books and music and art, Mom wasn’t an athlete in any sense of the word, and even if she had been so inclined, there were no opportunities for her to participate in school sports in the 1940s. Girls took home economics and learned to sew and cook and handle roles of domesticity. Girls did not, in 1946, the year my mom graduated from high school, shoot pucks or grab rebounds or head soccer balls as members of varsity athletic teams.

After graduating from Denfeld in 1945, Dad enlisted in the Army. He wasn’t around when Lloyd Holm took over the reigns of the Denfeld boys’ basketball team in 1946. Holm inherited a talented but undisciplined group of young men. The new coach worked the boys hard, instilling in them the notion that, alone, each of them was gifted, but together they were a force to be reckoned with.

Coach Holm’s vision of what could be culminated in a thrilling 46-44 victory over Crosby-Ironton on the storied hardwood of Williams Arena. My dad, as I said, wasn’t around to witness the one and only time Duluth Denfeld grabbed the brass ring and won the state championship in basketball. But Mom, who graduated from Denfeld a year earlier and remained in town to attend St. Scholastica, convinced Grandpa Jack to drive her and three of her girlfriends to Minneapolis to see the big game. Mom returned to Duluth with an appreciation for what those 10 young players accomplished.

My dad completed his obligation to Uncle Sam and married my mom. Over the years, as my parents raised a family, they shared the legacy of the ’47 Hunter team with my brother, my sister, and me as an example of what hard work and dedication to task can accomplish.

But to me, the boys who dispatched Crosby-Ironton in that championship game were more than just photographs hanging in the Denfeld gym. Those boys became men who became role models for a wire-rimmed, skinny, unathletic kid who lived on Chambersburg Avenue.

Though better suited for debate or speech, I found myself trying to emulate the ’47 team. I participated in varsity skiing and football, even though my talent for sports was marginal. I pushed myself athletically because Tessier, Nace, and Monson weren’t just names of long-forgotten heroes. Those men were, along with team manager Bob Scott, my friends. They were my hunting and fishing and skiing partners. And they were my mentors: men of integrity who helped guide me through life.

Sadly, all those members of the team have passed on. But on Oct. 8, when the entire 1947 boys’ basketball team was inducted into the Denfeld High School Hall of Fame, my friends were not only present in spirit; their voices could be plainly heard above the din of the audience seated in the storied Denfeld auditorium.

At the induction ceremony, Ken Sunnarborg introduced the members of the ’47 squad who are still alive and who were in attendance: Sunnarborg, Eugene “Pug” Norlander, Howard Tucker, and Keith Stolen.

After brief remarks, Sunnarborg turned the mic over to Norlander, and Norlander had a surprise in store for the family, friends, and alumni in attendance. A woman with no connection to the school discovered a sleeve of 78-rpm records for sale in a far-distant garage. After purchasing the records, the woman realized the discs contained the complete radio broadcast of the 1947 Minnesota State Basketball Championship Game. The woman read the players’ names printed on the album cover, used the internet to find Norlander, contacted him, and sent him the record.

Those at the hall of fame gathering heard the climactic final two minutes of the 1947 championship game — digitized to a quality unknown in the 1940s and complete with announcers, crowd noise, players’ grunts, the squeak of rubber sneakers against wood, the bang of leather on steel, and the swoosh of ball through net — for the first time in 70 years.

“Monson grabs a rebound.”

“Nace passes the ball.”

“Tessier takes the shot.”

As the voice of the radio announcer faded and as the present-day audience rose to its feet and applauded, tears formed. Tears of joy as I considered what it was like for my mom and her girlfriends to be at Williams Arena that night. Tears of sadness for the passing of friends, once young, then old, now gone. Tears of pride for being part of a unique and timeless bond shared by generations of Denfeld graduates.

May today’s Hunters — both young men and young women — carry on the proud legacy of clean play, dedication to community, and mentoring that made the 1947 state basketball championship team worthy of induction into the Denfeld Hall of Fame.

(An edited version of this piece first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune)

 

 

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