August 9, 2009
Hall of Fame event highlights Denfeld’s
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
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
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.