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Zenith City

Stories from Duluth

Michael Fedo

Publication Year: 2014

Duluth may be the city of “untold delights” as lampooned in a Kentucky congressman’s speech in 1871. Or it may be portrayed by a joke in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan. Or then again, it may be the “Zenith City of the unsalted seas” celebrated by Dr. Thomas Preston Foster, founder of the city’s first newspaper. But whatever else it may be, this city of granite hills, foghorns, and gritty history, the last stop on the shipping lanes of the Great Lakes, is undeniably a city with character—and characters. Duluth native Michael Fedo captures these characters through the happy-go-melancholy lens nurtured by the people and landscape of his youth. In Zenith City Fedo brings it back home. Framed by his reflections on Duluth’s colorful—and occasionally very dark—history and its famous visitors, such as Sinclair Lewis, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Dylan, his memories make the city as real as the boy next door but with a better story.

Here, among the graceful, poignant, and often hilarious remembered moments—pranks played on a severe teacher, the family’s unlikely mob connections, a rare childhood affliction—are the coordinates of Duluth’s larger landscape: the diners and supper clubs, the baseball teams, radio days, and the smelt-fishing rites of spring. Woven through these tales of Duluth are Fedo’s curious, instructive, and ultimately deeply moving stories about becoming a writer, from the guidance of an English teacher to the fourteen-year-old reporter’s interview with Louis Armstrong to his absorption in the events that would culminate in his provocative and influential book The Lynchings in Duluth. These are the sorts of essays—personal, cultural, and historical, at once regional and far-reaching—that together create a picture of people in a place as rich in history and anecdote as Duluth and of the forces that forever bind them together.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright, Quote

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

A writer’s memory is his bank, his repository of narratives that he honestly endeavors to resurrect when writing. Regardless of others’ perceptions and recollections, these remain his truth.
While not blessed with total recall, I remember many instances from toddlerhood, like my second birthday, when Dad gave me a baseball glove and delighted in rolling a ball over the living room carpet, urging me to catch it and cheering when the ball bumped the glove. I used to amaze adults in the family by accurately recounting my second Christmas, when I was awakened by bright lights from a neighbor who came to film me opening gifts...

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This Is Duluth!

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pp. 1-8

For all the chuckles that line received in the theater where I watched the film, as a native Duluthian it rang true for me. I haven’t lived in the city since the mid-1960s, but the effects of national media’s frequent lampooning of Duluth reside in my guts and have influenced how I view myself and the world at large...

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Miss Weddel and the Rats

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pp. 9-11

Though our family lived upstairs in a Regent Street duplex only until I was five, the image of Miss Weddel, who lived next door, remains fixed in my memory seven decades later. A spinster schoolteacher, Miss Weddel’s appearance reflected what one might assume a Miss Weddel to look like: pale complexion, severe unsmiling countenance, black hair pulled back into a bun. She wore dresses of black or navy blue, and her hats (always with the veil down) were also black or navy blue...

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The Roomer

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pp. 12-17

From October 1944 until I departed Duluth, my family lived in a two-story white house on Tenth Avenue East and Tenth Street. Occupying the house next door on our north side was my maternal grandmother, Augusta Norquist, her unmarried daughter Ada, and Hilma Norquist, Grandma’s sixty-something spinster sister-in-law.
The homes, which had been built by Mother’s father, Eric, were virtually identical. Each featured an enclosed front porch—an extended drawing room at Grandma’s house, but a repository for bicycles, camping gear, and athletic paraphernalia at our house...

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School Days

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pp. 18-27

Twenty-five years ago Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten hit the best-seller lists and stayed there for two years. You may recall his lessons: honesty, sharing, showing kindness, cleaning up after yourself, balancing work, play, and learning, among others. I wonder if that book could have been written, or if its conceit would have taken a vastly different direction, had Fulghum attended kindergarten with my lifelong chum Ralph Golberg...

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The Voice

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pp. 28-30

Who knew that in a world where a boy at Duluth Central High School would persistently beg acquaintances to put him on stage in their skits, and whose first roles were nonspeaking, that boy would a couple of decades later become the most prominent voice-over actor of his generation?...

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Beware the Ides of March, or The Death of Iago

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pp. 31-33

The Ides of March just aren’t what they used to be. You can’t find many folks who beware them anymore. I may be one of the exceptions. My own bewaring began during my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota–Duluth when an adviser suggested I would do well to brush up on my Shakespeare. He enrolled me in the course The Tragedies of William Shakespeare, taught by William Rosenthal, head of the English department...

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He Believed Writers Are Made, Not Born

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pp. 34-36

In the 1950s, when Ed Krzenski began teaching English, many of his contemporaries had already abandoned the Sisyphean struggle to equip their pupils with writing skills. The notion that writers are born—not made—was gaining credence in faculty lounges across the United States. In place of learning how to write, some teachers were asking students to respond orally to stories, essays, or poems rather than having students analyze the literature in writing, let alone fashion their own poetry or prose...

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Sinclair Lewis’s Duluth

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pp. 37-42

In 1970, a travel editor at the Los Angeles Times asked me to go to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis’s boyhood home, and write an article about the town believed to be the model for Gopher Prairie in the novel Main Street. Main Street was first published in 1920, and my piece would tie in with the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s release...

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Diners, Dives, No Drive-ins

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pp. 43-48

During my high school and college years in Duluth, the landmark Joe Huie’s Café on Lake Avenue below Superior Street figured prominently in the social lives of my penurious peers. There was a sign in front that read: LOST KEY WE NEVER CLOSE. Joe Huie’s was open 24/7. The restaurant featured Cantonese fare, and servings were both bounteous and cheap. A bowl of chop suey cost 90 cents and so did a platter of egg foo young. On a student budget, one could achieve gustatory satiation at Joe’s...

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Thou Shalt Not Shine

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pp. 49-54

At a recent reunion for 1950s and 1960s graduates of the old Duluth Central High School, a woman asked me to sign a book I’d published several years earlier. “It’s wonderful that you’ve written books,” she said. “I mean, when we were in school, no one considered that any of us might be authors or physicists or do anything important. I always got the impression we were expected to be average.”...

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Dad’s Legacy

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pp. 55-59

By all accounts our father was an admirable man—decent, honest, trustworthy. I omit patience here, because he wasn’t patient, and it exacerbated friction between Dad and us boys. The problem, I think, stemmed from the fact that in most human pursuits, he was more adept than his sons.
While David and I excelled in athletics, we didn’t equal his achievements. He starred in football and track, where he placed third in the 110-meter low hurdles at the 1929 Minnesota high school track meet, losing to Biggie Munn, later a legendary football coach at Michigan State University...

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My Father and the Mobster

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pp. 60-66

Several weeks ago I eavesdropped on a conversation coming from the next booth in a restaurant where I was eating lunch. A gravel-voiced man was saying that his grandfather had served soft drinks to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in Lakefield, Minnesota, just before they robbed the bank at nearby Okabena in 1933. The fellow seemed pleased to relate this story, and his companion sounded duly impressed as well. “Geez, Bonnie and Clyde,” he said. “I never knew they got up here to Minnesota.”...

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A Family Informed by Pyloric Stenosis

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pp. 67-72

One kindergarten morning Miss Geddes excused me to the boys’ room, where I removed every stitch of raiment, including socks and shoes, folded the clothes, and placed them on a nearby bench before alighting on the commode. A few moments later classmate Jack Sharkey sauntered into the room heading for a bank of urinals. He noticed me and did a quick double take. “Where are your clothes?” ...

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The Unmaking of a Missionary

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pp. 73-76

One mid-November Saturday when I was twelve, I was sent next door by Mother to borrow a cup of sugar from Grandma. I’d barely entered the kitchen with the empty measuring cup when Aunt Hilma came in waving an envelope at me and smiling. “Got a letter yesterday from Reuben,” she announced...

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The Hill

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pp. 77-79

Duluthians do not have adversarial relationships with their hills. Hills are simply there, like the lake, and provide no undue cause for concern—even in winter. The exception is one western end peak that bedeviled several generations of Italian Americans.
During the years of my father’s growing up and well beyond, my grandparents, Sam and Amelia Fedo, lived at 317 Seventeen-andone- half Avenue West. This street is scarcely more than one block long, but it is situated on a heart-breakingly steep slope...

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Discovering Rita

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pp. 80-84

One winter evening back in 1959 or 1960, I was sitting in the announcer’s booth at KDAL-AM, a radio station in Duluth, visiting with Loren Sandquist, who had recently landed a night shift as a disc jockey. Loren had been the program director at KUMD, the studentrun station at the University of Minnesota–Duluth, when I joined the staff as a freshman announcer a couple of years earlier...

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The Grand Piano Smelt

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pp. 85-88

There used to be a rite of spring in Duluth that has diminished somewhat over recent decades. When the winter ice left the shorelines along Lake Superior and the St. Louis Bay, thousands of area residents used to break out chest waders, dip nets, and seines to catch buckets of silvery smelt for an annual fish fry...

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Cousin Jean

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pp. 89-96

I was twenty-five years old before I first met my mother’s cousin Jean in April 1965, but I had long been aware of her mythic status among Duluth relatives. She had left home years before and had made her mark in New York, counting that city’s movers and shakers among her friends and acquaintances...

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Uncle See-See’s Secret?

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pp. 97-105

The fifty-year marriage of my great-uncle See-See was our family’s elephant in the living room. References to the marriage were infrequent, veiled, and never discussed. While See-See resided in my grandparents’ tiny house for more than four decades, neither my father nor his eight siblings ever laid eyes on his wife, Maria, or saw a photo of her...

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Radio Days

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pp. 106-108

I recall listening with my mother to morning breakfast programs before I was old enough for school. There was Breakfast in Hollywood, with Tom Breneman, whose shtick was prowling the audience and trying on ladies’ hats, to the great amusement of his studio audience and astoundingly to the radio listeners who could only imagine the portly gentleman donning women’s hats. Mother always laughed when Breneman would say something like, “Well, ladies, how about this one?” Mother once told me that Breneman was fat, and four-year-old I rejoined, “He doesn’t sound fat." ...

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The Tree

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pp. 109-112

“The Tree” was a column I cowrote with Mike Zempel for the Duluth Air National Guard’s 179th Fighter Squadron monthly news - letter. It didn’t begin as a column, nor was it our intention to turn a small notice of a car for sale into a journalistic feature. The squad - ron was undergoing its annual summer training at Volk Field near Wisconsin Dells during the last two weeks of July 1959...

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Keep Your Eyes Open

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pp. 113-117

On July 25, 1948, I was nine years old and mad for baseball. I played on age-appropriate baseball and softball teams, both based at the Central Field playground on Tenth Avenue East and Eleventh Street, about a block from our house. That morning I learned that the day before, the bus carrying the Duluth Dukes, a professional team in the class C Northern League, had collided with a truck that had crossed the center line on Highway 36 in Roseville, Minnesota..

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Baseball Days

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pp. 118-122

I was a good enough baseball player in my youth to get a tryout with the Duluth Dukes in 1957. At that time the Dukes played in the Class C Northern League as a farm team of the Chicago White Sox. I don’t think the Dukes management thought I might actually make the team, but they probably figured it was a good public relations gesture to occasionally extend a one-day look-see to a local kid...

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Joe DiMaggio Turns His Lonely Eyes toward the Girl at 2833 West Third Street

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pp. 123-129

A while back I joined an old Duluth Central High School baseball teammate for lunch. Now a retired entrepreneur, he said that he spends a month each summer traveling around the country watching minor league baseball games in places like Schaumburg, Illinois; New Britain, Connecticut; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Even Brooklyn has a minor league team now,” he told me. “It’s not Ebbetts Field, but it’s great to see baseball in Brooklyn again.”...

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Jogging with James Joyce

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pp. 130-133

The novels of James Joyce had always loomed monstrously impenetrable to me during my undergraduate years as a literature student at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. I had never considered this a handicap, but it does heighten the rather absurd circumstance in which I found myself one damp Dublin morning.
It was our first afternoon in the city, and my wife and I had stopped at Neary’s Pub, a favored haunt among the Dublin literati. “Yeats used to come here,” I told Judy. “And the whole Abbey Theatre crowd." ...

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At the Flame

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pp. 134-137

The Duluth restaurant of legend and lore in my boyhood was the Flame. During its more than four-decade existence, it had three locations in town, most famously the last one, on the bayside waterfront at the bottom of Fifth Avenue West. It was the city’s premier supper club with live music in addition to a pricey menu. For a number of years, a turbaned waiter known as “The Sultan of the Second Cup” poured customers’ coffee...

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For a Moment Dylan Played in Our Shadow

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pp. 138-139

With my partner, Dan Kossoff, I enjoyed a brief but heady run as a folksinger during the early 1960s. We played throughout the Midwest, appeared on numerous college campuses, and marqueed at the old Padded Cell in Minneapolis and the Crooked Ear, a coffeehouse in Omaha...

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Christmas with the Klines

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pp. 140-143

I spent my twenty-second Christmas in a quiet hotel dining room in overcast downtown Omaha, Nebraska, while my parents and brothers celebrated at home in frigid Duluth, Minnesota.
This was my first Christmas away from my family and its holiday traditions. There was the selection on December 24 of a tree at Stan Darling’s Pure Oil station, where Dad annually enjoyed choosing some bony old spruce nobody else wanted. Stan would sell it for a quarter because it was Christmas Eve...

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Remembering Satchmo

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pp. 144-146

During the centennial year (2001) of the great jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, there were numerous homages to the legendary artist by musicians who knew him and younger performers who felt his influence, as well as paeans from critics. Fans bought reissued CDs of his greatest hits. New Satchmo biographies were in the works...

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pp. 147-152

When Broxie Francis Maiz decided to become a psychology major at the University of Minnesota–Duluth in the fall of 1957, he was already thirty-seven years old and had never even set foot inside a high school classroom. Though I was only eighteen, and our backgrounds were vastly dissimilar, we became friends. A Southern black man, he endured a hardscrabble childhood, quite unlike my own. I had never known want and had enjoyed academic as well as athletic success in school...

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Brotherhood Week in Duluth

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pp. 153-160

Though only three years old in 1943, I was aware of World War II because my father’s youngest brother Joe was a marine PFC in the South Pacific. In my mother’s old scrapbook there’s a snapshot of me engulfed beneath his overseas cap and looking at a saber he’d removed from the body of a Japanese fighter on some tiny atoll...

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A Life Informed by a Lynching

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pp. 161-172

The zen philosopher poses the question, If a tree falls in the forest and no one is present, does it make a sound? For students of history the question may be, If no one knows about an incident, did it happen? Can aspects of history be obliterated from collective memory?
Victors and chauvinists record official histories, sometimes leading to the omission of events that might blemish reputations of leaders and heroes. Those who challenge the historical status quo— the so-called deconstructionists—are often pilloried. Truth in certain quarters seems a bitter pill...


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pp. 173-174

Publication History

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pp. 175-176

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9781452941356
E-ISBN-10: 1452941351
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816691104

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Fedo, Michael W. -- Childhood and youth -- Anecdotes.
  • Duluth (Minn.) -- Biography -- Anecdotes.
  • Duluth (Minn.) -- History -- Anecdotes.
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