Remembering Bruce Bennett

The late Bruce Bennett, a longtime Duluth News Tribune sports reporter, columnist and editor and Northland sports icon, will be honored later this week with induction into the University of Minnesota Duluth Athletic Hall of Fame.

Bennett was the subject of an Attic post back in the spring of 2008, marking the 10th anniversary of his death at age 61, just months after retiring from the News Tribune. For those who missed that missed the original post, here it is again…

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April 14, 1998

Ten years ago, the News-Tribune – and the entire Northland – lost a legend when longtime sports reporter, editor and columnist Bruce Bennett died. Bennett covered sports for the News-Tribune for nearly four decades, receiving countless awards, making countless friends and earning the admiration of many for his work. And he did it all despite being born without hands or forearms – something, as noted in an article below, he faced not as a handicap but as a challenge to be overcome.

Included below are a news story and column that ran after Bennett’s death, as well as the column Bennett wrote when he retired from the News-Tribune. It’s a lot of text, but his is a story worth reading about.

Bruce Bennett, executive sports editor of the News-Tribune, poses at his desk in December 1997 – the month he retired from the paper. (Bob King / News Tribune)

HONORED SPORTSWRITER WAS INSTITUTION, INSPIRATION

NORTHLAND LOSES LEGEND

By Kevin Kotz, News-Tribune

Bruce Bennett spent countless hours watching sporting events.

As an award-winning sportswriter and columnist for the Duluth News-Tribune for 38 years, Bennett’s name became synonymous with sports in the Northland.

On Monday evening, four months into his retirement, Bennett returned to his West Duluth home after a walk with his dog, sat down in his favorite recliner and turned on the television to a ball game.

There, in front of another sporting event, Bennett drifted off to sleep, had an apparent heart attack and died. He was 61.

“Bruce did enjoy the time he had to the fullest,” Bennett’s wife, Eunice, said Tuesday. “He never stopped having a wonderful time.”

Bennett’s contributions to sports, the newspaper and the community also never stopped.

On his walk Monday night, he distributed fliers about a Merritt Community Club meeting to be held in his home on Thursday. He had recently been elected secretary of the club.

Such contributions spanned five decades.

Bennett was named Minnesota’s sportswriter of the year in 1965, and received the honor again last year.

“Bruce was an institution to generations of Duluthians, not only for the daily physical obstacles he overcame to do his job, but for the heart and spirit he brought to every event and person he covered,” said Duluth Mayor Gary Doty in a release Tuesday. “It didn’t matter what sport it was — men’s or women’s, summer or winter, or where it happened on the map — if Bruce was there, the event got the respect it deserved.

“Whether it’s at Wade Stadium watching the Dukes, at any of half a hundred other venues around our area, or even at home reading his column, we have all lost a part of our lives.”

Bennett took a disability leave from the newspaper on Dec. 14, his last birthday. He had undergone two heart bypass operations and was bothered with shoulder problems for several years.

“When you climb out of bed in the morning, stretch, and your shoulder sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispies — you know, Snap, Crackle and Pop! — it’s no way to greet the day,” Bennett wrote in his retirement column.

Bennett was born in Marquette, Mich., without hands or forearms. He did not see his limitations as a handicap but as another challenge.

“As a kid, I thought I’d play shortstop for the Detroit Tigers some day,” Bennett said during his October induction into the Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame. “Obviously, those dreams were never realized. But because I loved sports so much, I wanted to stay close to them and a career with newspapers beckoned.”

Bennett graduated from the University of Michigan, where he was sports editor of the school paper. He joined the News-Tribune and Duluth Herald as a sportswriter in 1959 and was named sports editor of the two newspapers in December 1960.

He served as executive sports editor from 1961 to 1982 — when the two papers merged — and then he became associate sports editor, concentrating on writing columns.

“Bruce was my first boss,” said Patrick Reusse, now a sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I came in a 20-year-old punk trying to learn the business. Bruce set me straight right away. He wanted things done right.

“I only worked with Bruce for four months, but I always appreciated that he gave me the opportunity — which is something Bruce reminded me of several times when we would meet again. Bruce made me proud to be in the business.”

And with every inspirational story about Bennett, there was usually one with some humor.

“In golf, he’d spot me five strokes and beat me,” said Minnesota-Duluth men’s basketball coach Dale Race. “Bruce would hit the ball straight down the fairway — and he can chip and putt.

“I’d asked him, ‘How can I chip and putt like you?’ and Bruce would say ‘Don’t bend your wrists.’”

As a retirement gift, Bennett received a specially fitted set of golf clubs.

“Bruce played golf with his new clubs last Friday and came very close to a hole in one,” Eunice Bennett said. “He was still very, very active.’

Bennett was also an accomplished curler.

“Bruce will always be remembered as one of the greatest ambassadors of curling, which was a sport he enjoyed very much himself,” said world champion curler Bud Somerville of Superior. “There is no question we have all suffered a great loss.

“Bruce was an inspiration for me and many others. If I would have an ache or pain, all I would have to do is look at Bruce and realize I had nothing to complain about.”

Bennett was honored by the St. Paul-Minneapolis Minute Men in 1989 with the Courage Award, which is given to those who have overcome hardship to contribute to society.

“I have learned to live within my limitations and learned to do a lot of things that maybe surprises some people,’ Bennett said in December. “I scaled my life to meet those limitations. There are a lot of things I can’t do, and I don’t try to do them.”

Writing was something Bennett could do well. His beat ranged from covering the Minnesota Vikings in four Super Bowls to features about Little League baseball players.

“One of my favorite stories about Bruce was told again last year at his retirement party,’ said Don Olson, a former Superior high school basketball coach and curling partner of Bennett’s. “Dan Peterson was a young pitcher and he threw a wild pitch that cost his team the game. He knew Bruce was at the game and all Dan wanted to do was go home and hide.

“Dan’s mother read him the story Bruce wrote, and there wasn’t a word about the wild pitch. All Bruce wrote was that it was one of the best games he’s ever seen.

“That’s how Bruce approached sports writing. He was never one to embarrass anyone but to tell it like it was.”

Bennett said goodbye to his readers in that Dec. 18 column:

“It has been a great run, 38 years at this stand and 40 overall as a journalist,’ he wrote. “You’ll still see me at the ballpark, the fields, the gyms and the rinks — all my old haunts — tomorrow and the next week and next year, the Good Lord willing.

“However, I won’t be toting my tape recorder and laptop computer, tools of the craft these days and which I’ve hauled around for too long.”

Even retirement couldn’t keep Bennett away from sports, or writing columns for the News-Tribune. He frequently attended UMD basketball and hockey games and wrote “when the spirit moved me,’ he said.

Bennett visited a high school boys basketball game early this year that inspired his final column:

“I took a seat in relative obscurity up in a corner of the stands and just wanted to soak it all in,” Bennett wrote in the Jan. 18 News-Tribune. “. . . Hey, it was good to be part of the crowd again.”

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Bruce Bennett interviews Duluth-Superior Dukes pitcher Wayne Rosenthal at Wade Stadium in 1993. (News-Tribune file photo)

Here is an April 15, 1998, column by longtime News-Tribune sports writer, editor and columnist Irv Mossberger in memory of Bennett:

OF ALL THE STORIES, HIS WAS REALLY SPECIAL

When veteran sportscaster Marsh Nelson died, Bruce Bennett was there to write the story.

When long-time wrestling promoter and sports booster Harvey Solon died, Bruce Bennett was there to write the story.

Somehow, it’s unfair that the man who wrote so glowingly and lovingly about the local sports scene for so long should now be dead himself. Bruce died at his home Monday night, four months after taking disability retirement.

Marsh Nelson and Harvey Solon were among the many friends Bruce made in his nearly 40 years as columnist and sports editor of the News-Tribune and its former sister paper, the evening Duluth Herald. In that time he wrote virtually countless stories about countless people and events.

On my desk are two of the tools of his trade. No, not a typewriter or computer keyboard or even a pen and notebook.

They are two curved bands of steel, encased in molded plastic which in turn are covered with black electrician’s tape. Protruding from the bands are two thin, rubber-tipped steel rods.

These were, in essence, Bruce’s hands, which he was born without. His arms ended at the elbow.

He slipped these attachments over the stubs of his arms so he could type. And he could type. He could punch out a story as fast as anyone.

Other stories, like his column about Marsh Nelson’s death, took a little longer.

When Marsh Nelson died, Bruce wrote:

“What was Marsh like? Most of you knew him. The word genuine comes to mind. A man of character, of compassion. A friendly fellow who seemingly was always smiling.”

Bruce could have been writing about himself.

Sure, he was prone to the same petty faults and foibles that inflict the rest of mankind. And he’d have a beer now and then and at one time he smoked cigars. He quit those when he developed the heart trouble that led to two bypass surgeries and which eventually cost him his life at age 61.

But he wasn’t hard-bitten, cynical, or insolent, which is how reporters are sometimes perceived. That’s probably why several hundred people showed up at his retirement party in early January at the Duluth Curling Club.

Bruce was recognized in his lifetime for his writing achievements and for overcoming his handicap — which he said was not really a handicap because he never knew what it was like to have arms.

He won all kinds of awards and was elected to the Duluth Hall of Fame, and several other halls of fame as well.

Not so well recognized are the time and effort he devoted to writing about sports that might otherwise have gotten very short shrift.

He probably holds the world record among U.S. writers for covering world curling championships. He covered six in all, in Perth, Karlstad (Sweden), Winnipeg, Regina, and two in Duluth.

He helped give women’s sports exposure locally, taking it upon his shoulders to cover basketball and softball games, volleyball matches and other women’s events when they were considered after-thoughts by most media outlets.

Bruce was no prima donna. He would go from the comparatively cushy job of covering the Minnesota Vikings one weekend to getting drenched on the sidelines covering a high school football game in Cloquet the next.

Those were other reasons so many people showed up for his retirement, as a way of saying thanks.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever thanked him for giving me my start in this business. He hired me, an English and history major fresh out of college with absolutely no journalism experience, 26 years ago. A little late now, but thanks, Bruce.

Even though he retired in December, he still came into the office a few times each week to pick up mail and answer phone messages.

His photo and a story on his retirement were on the front page of the paper in December and it was reported on television and radio, but he continued to get calls from those who didn’t hear the news. He still does.

I imagine the calls will continue for some time. Now, though, I don’t look forward to them nor to telling callers that Bruce has died.

On his death bed, author William Saroyan said: “I knew everyone had to die sometime, but I always thought an exception would be made in my case.” That pretty much sums up man’s feelings about mortality.

It’s the fate that awaits us all, and yet, well, it doesn’t make it any easier when it does happen. I was still getting used to the idea that Bruce was retired and wasn’t going to be at the office every day.

He came in Friday to make a few calls for a story he was doing about the Duluth-Superior Dukes, a team he covered in both the old and new versions of the Northern League. He’d covered the latest edition of the Dukes since the team’s inception in 1993.

He said he was going to Voyagers Village the next day with a couple of his golfing pals.

In December and again a few weeks ago he mentioned he didn’t have a lot of energy and tired easily. When he came in Friday he didn’t have the same old bounce in his step.

Bruce was on the phone Friday when I stepped away from my desk. When I returned he was gone, so I never got the chance to say goodbye.

When he left, he forgot his typing attachments.

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Bruce Bennett talks on the telephone while covering a Dukes game at Wade Stadium. (Howie Hanson / submitted photo / News Tribune files)

Here is the column Bennett wrote when he retired. It ran in the News-Tribune on Dec. 18, 1997:

THANKS FOR THE 38 YEARS OF MEMORIES

When you climb out of bed in the morning, stretch, and your shoulder sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispies — you know, Snap, Crackle and Pop! — it’s no way to greet the day.

I know now how sore-armed pitchers must feel when they can no longer put the mustard on their fastball. It’s getting tougher every day to pound the computer keyboard and a bottle of Ibuprofen sits close by to ease the pain.

Rotator cuff tendinitis and arthritis, even in its early stages, are no fun. If you’ve ever had a toothache — and who hasn’t? — you know the feeling. But unlike a tooth, you can’t extract a shoulder, which is to say I’m bowing out of this corner of the sports page today.

Because of these and some other health concerns, I feel I owe it to myself and my family to step aside. I am taking disability leave.

It has been a great run, 38 years at this stand and 40 overall as a journalist, counting brief stints at two other places as a cub reporter years ago. I’ve been privileged to work for and with people I’ve respected and to work each day at a job I enjoyed, rather than one I disliked.

You’ll still see me at the ballpark, the fields, the gyms and the rinks — all my old haunts — tomorrow and the next week and next year, the Good Lord willing.

However, I won’t be toting my tape recorder and laptop computer, tools of the craft these days and which I’ve hauled around for too long. They’ve long since replaced the portable typewriters and copy paper we used to carry.

I’ve seen the newspaper industry turn 180 degrees over the years. From hot-metal type to cold type, from paste-pots to computers, from those noisy old teletype printers to the quiet hum of the Internet.

One regret I’m afraid is a degree of the trust we’ve built, as professionals, with the people we cover and the readers we serve has eroded over the years and some look upon us today as “vultures.’ Sadly, the feeling is sometimes deserved.

Happily, from my perspective, I’ve been lucky to make a lot of friends — and I suppose some enemies — along the way. It goes with the territory.

I came in at a time when the Minneapolis Lakers were on their last legs and I leave as the Minnesota Twins are apparently on theirs. The North Stars came and went and I watched the demise of Gopher football.

I’ve seen hockey flourish in the Northland and remember the state boys basketball tournament when it was “The Show.’ And I’ve watched girls and women’s sports explode.

From afar I’ve admired the Packers from Lombardi to Holmgren and up close suffered with Bud Grant through four Super Bowls and seen the Vikings lose their “edge,’ going from outdoors — where football belongs — to indoors under the ‘Dome. And prickly management has infiltrated the Vikings “family.’

Six Silver Brooms, a World Series, the Rose Bowl and all those trips to Kansas City with Dale Race and Minnesota-Duluth basketball teams for NAIA tournaments. And covering countless other games in the Twin Ports, the Iron Range and South Shore.

The return of the Dukes to what my late pal Marsh Nelson would always call “beautiful Wade Stadium.’

Golf at St. Andrews, Cajun food on Bourbon Street, sipping margaritas in Mexico City with Mesabi Community College football coach Pepper Lysaker, frolicking on Waikiki with the Bulldogs softball team, and so many more good times.

It has been fun. Thanks, folks, for the memories.

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Former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant speaks to Duluth Arena Sports Hall of Fame inductee Bruce Bennett and a crowd of more than 200 that honored the sportswriter in November 1986. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

And here is one more item – a column Bennett wrote for the March 17, 1996, News-Tribune that I stumbled across … and found really enjoyable:

CROMWELL SHOULD HAVE PLENTY OF FUN

These Cromwell kids are really something! The Minnesota nine-man champs in football get a shot at a rare double this week when they play in the Class A basketball tournament.

The Cardinals have the perfect blend of an inside-outside game with their Mutt and Jeff combo, 6-foot-11 James Purcell and 5-8 Ryan Olesiak, a mighty mite if there ever was one. Purcell looks like a young Kevin McHale, though surely not as developed athletically as McHale was when he took Hibbing to the state tournament 20 years ago.

Purcell will be a great recruit for a small-college basketball program, even if he redshirted a year to develop physically. Or maybe play at a junior college. He has that same nice, soft touch on his shots. And he can run. And with his size, he’d be worth any college coach’s gamble.

Christmas for Cromwell came in January, at semester break, when Purcell returned to the tiny town along Minnesota Highway 210, 45 miles west of Duluth. Coach Erik Uselman couldn’t have hit a bigger jackpot at the casino!

Purcell had attended school in Cromwell since eighth grade. Last summer he moved to Bloomington with his mother and went to Bloomington Jefferson last fall. It didn’t work out, so at the break he moved back to Cromwell. He lives with his grandparents and is back among his chums and classmates.

What coach wouldn’t cherish a 6-11 shot in the arm at midseason? But Purcell’s not a one-man gang. Cromwell was good before he came back. And much better ever since.

Olesiak is simply a splendid athlete. I’ve seen him play football, too, and while he’s a great outside shooter on the basketball court, he’s better on the gridiron, a real tough customer. He is made for Minnesota-Duluth’s running game.

Dean Nyberg is a cool customer no matter what the game. Great football quarterback, fine all-around player on the basketball floor. The Jack Armstrong type, if you go back that far. Ditto Brian Granholm, who can simply run all day and hasn’t found a sport he can’t play.

Cory Aho is the fifth starter and, in the Section 7A final Thursday against Esko, Steve Dahl subbed occasionally for him. Both can play and handle their roles. The other four Cardinals went the full 32 minutes.

Cromwell will be the most fun-to-watch team to hit the Twin Cities since Richie Olson brought Edgerton to Williams Arena in 1960. The Cardinals will be a big crowd favorite at the St. Paul Civic Center this week.

Edgerton’s bench wasn’t any deeper than Cromwell’s, and the team managed to stay out of foul trouble enough to win the fans’ hearts. Not to mention winning the tournament.

Not to put any extra pressure on the Cardinals. They don’t have to win a thing. They already have. This is a special team, a special blend, a special class. Cromwell — and don’t forget nearby Wright (the school is actually Cromwell-Wright) — can be “justly proud,’ as the old Williams Arena public address announcer Julie Perlt would say.

My advice to the Cardinals:

Go to St. Paul and have some fun. If you win some games along the way, all the better, but for sure: enjoy!

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Share your memories of Bruce Bennett by posting a comment.

8 thoughts on “Remembering Bruce Bennett

  1. I met Bruce when we were both freshmen at the University of Michigan and saw him frequently during our four years there. He was just a super human being! We were required to wear ties for dinner and tying the tie was one of the few things Bruce couldn’t do. Someone was always there to tie it. That’s the only thing I remember that he couldn’t do. He taught all of us a lot about will and attitude. He was a fine writer but even a better guy!

  2. Dear friend Golfed together,on Duluth visits,lots of Baseball talk and exchanging letters through the winter.Well known and loved by all.
    Bernie

  3. Thanks to the Attic for a tremendous read! I have many memories of Bruce, first while I worked with Dale Race and the men’s basketball program at UMD in the late-80s and early-90s, and for a brief stint in 93 when I got my start in the newspaper business taking scores on Friday and Saturday nights in the DNT sports department. A tremendous sportswriter, with a style that, unfortunately, isn’t seen much today. Bruce was a tremendous columnist, and the sports section hasn’t been the same since he left. Sad to note that Kevin Kotz, the writer of the story marking Bruce’s death, has also since passed away.

    I’ll be attending the hall of fame banquet Friday night at UMD to recognize Bruce, Scott Hanna, and the rest of a great hall of fame class.

  4. I was a visiting “colleague” from Maine who had been visiting Duluth for several years, reading Bruce’s columns. I admired him and wanted to meet him. I found myself downtown one late morning and stopped in to the News Tribune office. I asked if Bruce was there. I was directed up to the newsroom where another person pointed out Bruce’s desk. He was hunched over, typing a mile a minute. I didn’t want to disturb him so I stood quietly by, waiting for a lull. When it came, I softly said his name so as not to frighten him. He turned in his chair and that’s when I saw his arms for the first time. I don’t think shocked is too strong a word, considering the speed of the typing I had just witnessed, and I’m sure he saw that in my reaction. It never showed. I introduced myself to this bright, smiling face, he invited me to sit down and we began speaking of sports. His so-called handicap disappeared as we talked, never again to appear. I had previously met Marsh Nelson and was downtown that day to have lunch with him. When I described my meeting with Bruce to Marsh, he just smiled and advised me not to play golf with him. How fortunate I have been in my lifetime to know two of the finest men I have ever met in my life – Bruce and Marsh. They were taken from us in fairly quick succession – and much too soon. It’s meeting men like these, and the many kids I met along the way, that made my choice of covering sports as a profession so worthwhile and gratifying. Thanks to the Attic for bringing back so many pleasant memories of these two great men.

  5. When I first joined the News-Tribune staff as a young man, I felt sorry for Bruce. Then one day I watched him bat fielding practice for the newspaper’s women’s softball team. He’d stand at the plate, call out the position where he was going to hit the ball, and then hit it directly to that spot. Then he’d catch another ball from the catcher, call the next position, toss the ball in the air, swing the bat and hit the ball right to the position he had called. Hell, he was better than I was by far. It was a lesson for me. I never felt sorry for him after that. In fact, I came to admire him greatly.

    Some years later I heard a story about him that spoke volumes. When he was a boy growing up at the Soo, his parents invited to their home a salesman who worked for a company that made artificial limbs. They weren’t functional but they were rubbery and looked “real.” The salesman stood inside the Bennetts’ house watching Bruce play baseball outside with the neighborhood kids. After a few minutes the salesman closed his sales case, shook his head and told the Bennetts, “There’s nothing I can do for your son. He doesn’t need these.”

  6. I first met Bruce personally when he covered the Bulldogs basketball team. We got to know each other well, as I attended Hoop Club meetings and he was always there. Every once in a while, I’d get this bump in the back and turn around and there was Bruce. We’d chat, he’d ask about the Range sports teams, both high school and junior college. I admired him so much, I went to the Hall of Fame ceremony with a former colleague of his, Jerry Johnson of the MDN. Bruce was the best sportswriter in the nation, bar none.

  7. I played on the same team as Bruce during a scramble golf tournament. He was much better than me. I recall, too, that he had a booming voice. He was very nice and seemed to enjoy meeting people and talking to them.

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