Denfeld News

August 9, 2009
Duluth Budgeteer News

Hall of Fame event highlights Denfeld’s past
Commentary by Dave LeGarde

This past weekend, Denfeld High School held an induction ceremony for the newest members of its hall of fame. The group featured a wide array of success stories from various walks of life. All are worthy of such a distinct honor.

As a graduate of the school, I greatly enjoyed a self-guided building tour as part of the festivities. In the quiet of the deserted halls, one could feel the rich history of West Duluth’s greatest landmark. The auditorium, which once featured the likes of Johnny Cash and Richard Nixon, has been refurbished into an absolute gem.

Denfeld has an outstanding athletic tradition dating back decades. Multiple sports have produced dozens who became part of our city’s lore. Rivalries with East, Central and now Marshall have brought out the best of all four schools.

The event last Saturday brought good-natured discussion of who was Denfeld’s greatest athlete. Names from several eras were bandied about by classmates, coaches and fans alike. There were good arguments for everyone mentioned.

Early on, Wally Gilbert set the standard. The 1917 graduate was the star player of the school’s initial city championship football team — and scored the only touchdown in the very first clash with Central. He later achieved baseball fame with the Brooklyn Dodgers, earning praise as one of the best ever to play for the storied franchise.

Ray King and Frank Larson were dominant football players in the 1930s and later starred at the University of Minnesota during a time when the Gophers captured numerous Big Ten and national championships. Both achieved All-American honors, and their teams are still considered among the best ever.

Other Hunters have made their mark at higher levels, including goaltender Robb Stauber. He also became a Gopher, and he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top college hockey player in 1988. This was two years after leading Denfeld to its first-ever berth in the state high school tournament.

Barbara Rotvig, a 1946 graduate, was a pioneer in women’s sports, participating in just about anything offered at the time. She later made her mark as a professional golfer.

The argument about who was greatest will always be up for debate. There is no doubt, however, which decade produced the most success for the school: The 1940s are the clear winner, with numerous championships earned by individuals as well as teams.

The football squad of 1942, led by Wally Smith’s 23 touchdowns, went undefeated in eight games. Smith, who crossed the goal line an amazing 50 times in his career, was a four-year starter who drew accolades from all who saw him.

The 1946-47 school year brought a city title in football, a state championship in basketball and a trip to the state baseball tournament. That senior class has to be considered among the greatest in Duluth history. The highly anticipated football game with Central was played in muddy conditions in front of 12,000 fans at Public Schools Stadium. A 19-0 Denfeld win was highlighted by Larry Tessier’s three touchdowns.

The three state tournament basketball games at Williams Arena in Minneapolis each drew more than 18,000. With Rudy Monson, Paul Nace and Tessier leading the way, the Hunters squeaked past Crosby-Ironton in a hard-fought final.

Two seasons later, Chuck Hren and Bobby Daniels led a march to the state football crown. The pair of running backs proved to be unbeatable, with Hren later starring at Northwestern University before becoming the Denfeld coach several years later.

The next spring, Daniels finished an extraordinary senior year by winning three sprint titles at the state track meet.

His performance also led the Hunters to the team championship.

That decade was truly a golden era for Denfeld athletics and would be difficult to match. (Though the Duluth East programs of the 1990s are comparable, as the Greyhounds won state honors in a variety of sports.)

The nice thing about the ceremony at Denfeld was the fond memories it brought back for those who attended. It also gave several generations a glimpse at its historic past.

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