Denfeld News

March 5, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

‘A Bulldog through and through’
By Kevin Pates

A large leather chair recently was delivered to Dukes Knutson’s home in Sarasota, Fla. It’s red, white and blue and bears the name of his favorite baseball team — the Minnesota Twins.

Relaxing in comfort during retirement is the plan.

The chair, however, may not be occupied very often.

Knutson, 55, one of the best-known figures among athletes in Duluth since 1969, is retiring in June as a physical education teacher at Duluth Denfeld High School and moving to Sarasota in September, joining his mother in a home he owns.

But devotion to his family, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and baseball is expected to keep him from settling into a cushy spot.

“He loves people and loves life, and everything interests him,” says Marge Knutson, his mom. “He already has things lined up for when he gets here.”

The longest-running sports connection in Knutson’s life has been with the University of Minnesota Duluth. He’s been a volunteer statistician for home football and men’s hockey games since 1969, and has worked in the same capacity with men’s and women’s basketball off and on since 1969.

He originated Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings at the school in two stints, the first from 1982-84 and the second from 1992 to the present.

The best guess by school officials is that Knutson has seen more than 1,500 UMD sporting events.

His statistical duties came to an official end Saturday with the season’s final men’s hockey home game. Knutson, a lifelong Duluthian and UMD graduate, sang the national anthem before Friday’s hockey game and was honored in a ceremony arranged by UMD sports information director Bob Nygaard.

“His tenure and support at UMD is amazing,” Nygaard said. “There are many times that we’ve tried to pay him for his [press box] work, but he’s turned it down. His kind of enthusiasm, for such a long period, is something our school will probably never see again.”

In a brief two-year paid career with UMD (1982-84), Knutson worked in sports information. His 37-year stint overall likely ranks only behind former football coach Jim Malosky’s 40 years of service to the athletic department.

“Even though Dukes never played sports at UMD, he’s a Bulldog through and through. He’s one of a kind,” said former UMD athletic director Bruce McLeod, now commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Keeping a schedule

Thomas “Dukes” Knutson’s alarm rings daily at 4:16 a.m. He has quiet time for himself, and then is at Denfeld by 6:40 a.m. His first class is at 8:10 a.m. After school he works out at the Center for Personal Fitness and often grabs a sub sandwich.

Winter nights are usually busy with sports-related items — at UMD, or working the scoreboard for basketball or volleyball games at Duluth East, his alma mater, where he taught from 1984-2003.

And there are Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings at Denfeld and UMD.

“I don’t know if you’d say I have a ‘purpose-driven life,’ but the best thing about my life is the relationships I’ve developed through teaching, UMD and FCA,” said Knutson, who is Catholic. “There’s really not much on TV that I’m interested in and I’ve never played a video game. I’m a person of faith and my social life is being connected to sports.”

Knutson, who is single, does go to movies and the theater, and bikes and jogs (running Grandma’s Marathon in 1983), travels to Sarasota about five times a year, works at FCA summer camps and figures he attends about 10 weddings of former students annually. He also was previously baseball coach at East and Denfeld, and assistant boys hockey coach at both schools.

His baseball loyalty is supreme.

He’s been to 23 major league ballparks, the bulk of which were seen in a 10-day, 10-park trip in 1992, and at one time worked in group-ticket sales for the Twins. He attends about a dozen Twins games a season.

“Dukes is very energized, he’s dedicated to his job, he’s go-go-go,” said retired Duluth teacher Tim McCall, who worked with Knutson for nearly 25 years at East and Denfeld. “He’s one of those rare people who is always positive and always puts people at ease.”

Ed Crawford, in his second year as Denfeld principal, sees Knutson as well-organized and something of a perfectionist in his teaching regimen, and demanding, in a fair way, of his students.

“There was a time, when Dukes was at East, when three students had come to school from out of state, and they were struggling. They were having a tough time adjusting,” Crawford said. “Dukes spent so much time and energy trying to help. He wasn’t going to give up on them.

“That’s who he is. He genuinely cares about his students and has influenced so many of them.”

UMD and faith

UMD hockey winger Brad Penner of Steinbach, Manitoba, was looking for something more in his college life as a senior in the fall of 1992. He knew Knutson and approached him about restarting FCA meetings at the school.

Penner ultimately led the meetings, now regularly attended by about 60 men and women on campus. Knutson says the purpose is to create an environment for students to explore and be comfortable with their faith.

“So many good things have come through FCA because of Dukes,” said Penner, 37, who lives in Plymouth, Minn., and works in sales for a construction company. “He was very supportive, very willing to help. He was the one who, if you were having a bad day, was always there for you.”

Duluth native Brett Larson, a UMD defenseman from 1991-95 and an FCA member, remembers being impressed by Knutson’s love of sports and passion for faith. Just before the start of each home hockey game, after UMD had huddled on the ice, Larson pointed toward the DECC press box to Knutson, who waved back.

Larson jokes that the connection may have been the reason for earning 43 assists in his UMD career with Knutson as official scorer.

“When I think back to UMD, the two most positive guys I was around were Dukes and Hogie [volunteer hockey manager Dale Haagenson],” said Larson, 34, of Orlando, Fla., who played international hockey until last season.

The past three years, Knutson also has served as chaplain for UMD’s football team, which includes meeting before home games in the school dining center. About 35 players take part in praying and reading Bible verses.

Offensive lineman Mark Knudsen of Muskego, Wis., a 2006 captain, was motivated enough by his FCA experience to become more involved, and will work as an FCA camp intern this summer.

“You get fellowship there that you don’t get anywhere else, and it starts with Dukes,” said Knudsen, 22, who will receive a physical education degree in May. “He’s an amazing witness for the Lord.”

Sarasota bound

Marge Knutson, 89, presently lives on her own, but is looking forward to the move of her son, whom she calls Tom. She says he’s much like her husband, Ed, a salesman, who died in 1994.

“Tom’s father had great morals. He would kneel down and say a prayer every morning and there’s no doubt Tom was affected by that,” Marge said. “Tom finds the good in everyone. He’s very patient and he takes wonderful care of me.”

After 32 years of teaching, Knutson says he’ll miss the students.

After 37 years with UMD, including his undergraduate days, he says he’ll miss the games.

But after the last day of school on June 8, he’ll prepare for heading south and taking a break, and at least some time in his favorite chair.

“Sarasota already seems like home and I’m looking forward to starting new relationships and being ready for whatever life brings next,” Knutson said.

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