Former port director Davis Helberg reflects on his life
ESKO — On a July day when everything was as summer should be, Davis Helberg made his way to a creek off of his yard. A walking stick in one hand, he stepped through a column of sunlight and patch of ferns to the lip of babbling water below.
"In the springtime this thing is just roaring," he said, before reflecting: "As a boy, I played in this creek an awful lot."
In the moment, one imagined the 77-year-old Helberg reduced to his boyhood self — in the late 1940s, casting a line into the same knuckle of water or racing along the sandy creek bed.
The creek joins other spidery reaches of water farther downstream to form Mission Creek as it carries into the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth.
For Helberg, the tentacles of a life devoted to exploring one track and then another have converged again at the place he has always called home. Growing up he lied in the thick grass here, studying the clouds and listening to radio calls of baseball games. On nights in his room, he memorized batting champions as if they were Bible chapters.
"I had many, many opportunities to go but this place has got a hold of me," said Helberg, a visitor to 55 countries — a lot of his travel coming while on duty for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
Aside from trips to his oncologist in Duluth, Helberg is keeping mostly to his beloved Esko these days, and the family farm upon which he was raised and in all likelihood will die.
Helberg's last days are upon him.
A once-towering figure in Duluth for being the longest-running director of its port (Helberg Drive is named after him) and a commanding voice for readers of the News Tribune and other publications chronicling the Great Lakes and Northland, Helberg is caught in the grip of small-cell lung cancer.
He's almost 30 pounds lighter than the last time most people saw him. His pallor is that of a hotel bedspread. Diagnosed in winter, the cancer had already spread to a shoulder, hip and below his ribs. The worry lately is that the cancer will live up to its reputation and reach his brain. An end-of-life timeline is vague, his doctor tells him. It could be a couple of months; it could be significantly longer.
"You always kind of expect it's going to be a blow to the gut," said Helberg, who retired in 2003 from the Port Authority after 24 years as executive director. "It really wasn't that bad, because I think I've looked mortality in the eye a few times."
Twenty-eight days of in-patient alcohol treatment in 1984.
"I haven't had any desire to have a drink since."
Throat cancer in 1985 in the midst of decades of smoking.
"Radiation knocked that out in 30-some treatments."
A heart attack in 1993 that left him passed out in the office and earned him two stents.
"That was close," Helberg said, before striking his point. "I have had a full life. I don't have regrets."
'The guy's a champ'
In his years as the port director, Helberg helped to style windblown sheets of sand under the Blatnik Bridge into a more full and vibrant waterfront. Among the things he's most proud of was forging the now 27-year-old agreement with Lake Superior Warehousing Co. to run the day-to-day operations of the Clure Public Marine Terminal and still-expanding container and bulk cargo docks. The expertise exhibited by LSW has afforded the Port Authority the confidence with which to foster new business and growth.
Early on in life, before stockpiling achievements, Helberg worked in fearless proximity to Duluth heavyweights. In doing so he became as adroit and connected as they come. The much-adored News Tribune sports editor Bruce Bennett admired and trusted Helberg so much that Bennett's wife found a note upon her husband's death in 1998 saying he wanted his eulogy conducted by Helberg, which he did before a crowded sanctuary at the copper-topped First United Methodist Church. It was among more than two dozen eulogies Helberg would go on to give.
More generally, Helberg has lived what people used to call a romantic life. Helberg ascended without a post-secondary degree, fitting in a year of college locally. He was a polymath in that way — absorbing and articulating the world around him as he went. He required no middle man. His senior year of high school in 1957, he punched muscular copy into a typewriter as the winner of a prized News Tribune internship. The sirens of newspaper never ceased calling him back, though he wouldn't always answer. After graduation, he made his way onto a Steinbrenner family-owned ship as a 17-year-old deckhand.
"I learned things as a sailor that they didn't teach you in Esko," Helberg said.
He wrestled back and forth over those vocations throughout the earliest chapters of his career. He seemed to marry the two for a stint as the Port Authority public relations director, before returning to what he fondly referred to as "newspapering." He was finally swayed by the better pay along the waterfront and found he could write freelance assignments by lamplight from home.
Jim Banks is one of the oodles of people in the region who gush superlatives when discussing Helberg. Banks owned a chandlery service in Superior, Allouez Marine Supply, and has grown especially tight with Helberg in the past 15 years.
Banks called Helberg "Mr. Esko."
"He's always interested in other people and accepting of people's points of view," Banks said. "He's a bright soul, a fantastic writer, a voracious reader."
Banks recently came from Maple, Wis., to chauffeur Helberg to a doctor's appointment. They planned a lunch and hoped to fit in a stop at the bookstore in West Duluth.
Helberg's house has been twice added onto from the original homestead. He outfitted it with a full library and calls himself "a sucker for buying books." But Helberg's appetite comes and goes from the illness, and with it his energy on what turned out to be a lower key day than he and Banks had planned.
"The guy's a champ," Banks said of Helberg. "He's done so much in his life, and his point of view, his take on things, is so cool. He's always been true to his own compass."
Stacey Carlson Helberg met Davis when she was coming out of the U.S. Coast Guard. There was a 30-plus-year difference between them, but they discovered a uncommon bond. They married in 2012. Her life features a similar backstory to his, involving multiple ambitious pursuits including one path to shipping and the water. But despite a transportation and logistics management degree from the prestigious University of Wisconsin-Superior program, Stacey has since joined several other members of her family in becoming a caregiver. A registered nurse, she works for St. Louis County as a public health nurse.
Her husband's admiration for Carlson Helberg shines through in conversation.
"She was a deckhand," he said. "She was 5-foot-6 and all of 130 pounds. You wouldn't think, but you learn leverage and learn how to do things; she's smart. ... She's been a rock through this whole thing. I just can't say enough about her."
Stacey described their day-to-day steeped in the positives which have defined their time together. They have a good time and laugh a lot — even joke about his situation. She still goes to work.
But they have also confronted the realities of the situation. She is able to appreciate his needs and provide care. He is able to let down his guard.
"I don't shy away from it at all," she said. "For me, I feel like the opportunity to be that person for him really is an honor."
Earlier this year, a gallbladder-removal procedure unrelated to his cancer, and subsequent complications, found Helberg fighting with cognitive issues. It was a demanding time and, the couple suspected, a prelude to what lies ahead.
"We spent New Year's Eve talking about his memorial service — which is pretty awful," Stacey said. "But it was good, too. I learned things about him."
Helberg was previously married to his first wife, Karen, for 45 years until her death. They had three children — an oldest son, William, living in Helsinki, Finland; a daughter, Heidi Wendland, living and working locally; and a son, Adam, in the log house next door of their multigenerational compound in rural Esko. Between Helberg's progeny, there are six grandchildren, a great-grandson and a great-granddaughter due in October.
Intertwining family and his work life in conversation, Helberg recalled five years working for the Upper Great Lakes Pilots as the chief dispatcher for the westernmost district of Great Lakes. It was a time of heavy traffic in the 1970s with up to 200 or more oceangoing ships needing pilots every year into and out of the Twin Ports. It could depend on the vagaries of the grain trade, but in all he described that time as one long day — starting in April and ending in December.
"I was a workaholic," Helberg said. "I'm not proud of it. My kids paid the penalty. I didn't spend as much time with them as I should have."
Coming home from work, he would ascend Thompson Hill and the thought of his retreat to Esko relaxed him in equal proportion to the morning's ride in.
"You'd go over that hill and all of a sudden I could feel my pulse start coming alive — the port stretched out there in the lake," Helberg said. "There's just something special about that."
Those there-and-back trips started to come fewer and further between as Helberg has gradually stayed closer to home.
"As I've gotten deeper into retirement I've shed away all of those nonprofits and regional, national and international organizations," he said. "I've gotten a lot of fulfillment out of my involvement here."
Until having to take leaves of absence recently to deal with his illness, Helberg gave of his time to the town's educational foundation board, historical society and sports alliance. He's collaborated on and published the quintessential book about Esko and Thomson Township, "Esko's Corner," and led the start of an athletic hall of fame at the school two years ago, enjoying the chance to see its inaugural class.
"I bleed Esko blue and gold," Helberg said, remembering how he fell in love with a historically feisty Esko High School basketball team at 9 years old.
Among a series of big picture transactions he's conducting as his time draws down, Helberg is also finishing up a more personal book.
"It'd be too pretentious to call it a memoir," he said.
He is about 55,000 words into a collection of essays and anecdotes that he's settled on calling, "Did I ever tell you?"
By Davis Helberg.