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Davis William Helberg


November 9, 2018

Davis William Helberg passed away Oct. 10, 2018, at his home in Esko. He was diagnosed with cancer in January 2018 and faced that battle with his usual high spirits, optimism and a generous amount of SISU.

Davis, known as "DeeDee" growing up, was born to Bill and Mary Helberg Dec. 10, 1940. He graduated from Esko High School in 1958 and married his high school sweetheart Karen in 1961. They were married for 45 years before her death in 2006; they had three children, Bill, Heidi and Adam.

At the age of 17, Davis sailed as a deckhand on the Great Lakes freighter the LaBelle. The year he spent aboard was his entry into the Great Lakes shipping industry. He worked for the Alastair Guthrie vessel agency during the Seaway's early years and remembered vividly May 3, 1959, the day the first oceangoing ship arrived at Duluth. Davis would spend the bulk of his career in the shipping industry, but for six years was a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Herald covering sports and county government. As a sports writer, he penned "It's Prep-Posterous," a column showcasing high school sports and athletes, and as a feature writer he interviewed the likes of Jack Benny, Harry Reasoner and Buddy Hackett.

Davis left the newspaper in 1968 to become the port's public relations director. He joined Upper Great Lakes Pilots in 1972 and served as president of North Central Terminal Operators beginning in 1977 before his appointment as port director in 1979. Davis retired in 2003 after 24 years as executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Davis was president of the Duluth Superior Harbor Club, and a past president of the Duluth Superior Propeller Club. He held offices in several national maritime organizations, including a 1994-1995 term as chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities, an organization representing all major ports of the western hemisphere. He was named Great Lakes Person of the Year in 1992, was presented the U.S. Coast Guard's Meritorious Public Service award in 1999, and received an honorary doctorate in 2003 from the University of Wisconsin-Superior. In 2007, he was inducted into the Great Lakes Marine Hall of Fame in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

After his retirement, Davis turned his focus back to Esko and served on the boards of the Esko Educational Foundation, the Esko Tree Board, the Esko Historical Society and the Carlton County Historical Society. In his last years, he served as secretary of the Esko Sports Alliance and organized the creation of the Esko Sports Alliance Hall of Fame.

Davis was a gifted writer and storyteller and had a quick wit. During his years as port director, he was a columnist for Lake Superior Magazine and the Journal of Commerce, and in retirement wrote for Great Lakes Seaway Review. He was the editor of "Pride of the Inland Seas: The Illustrated History of the Port of Duluth-Superior" (2004), "Esko's Corner: An Illustrated History of Thomson Township" (2013) and "Thomson Township's Night of Terror" (2018). During his final months, Davis was writing his own book - he would often say "memoir" was too pretentious - a collection of life experiences and stories about the places he traveled and the people he met. The working title of the book was "Did I Ever Tell You ... ?" He was writing the final chapter when he died.

Davis's death would have given him a chance to provide a definitive response to a frequently asked question: "Have you lived in Esko all your life?" He would respond to that question enthusiastically by saying, "Not yet!" The truth, however, is that Davis lived in Duluth for about 10 years but returned to his original home after his father died, and, despite opportunities elsewhere, chose to stay because of his love for the woods, the wildlife and the Esko community.

Davis was proud of and loved his family and friends immensely. A self-proclaimed sports nut, he fell in love with sports, especially baseball, at an early age and would often say, "I need a box score fix." He had the radio on throughout the day, read multiple daily newspapers, worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle and had a library full of books. He enjoyed the outdoors, created and maintained gardens, and preserved the beauty of nature around his home and property. He could be spotted on his daily morning walks with his faithful dogs. Davis was a friend of Bill and was grateful every day for his 34 years of sobriety. He was generous and kind, a historian and lifelong learner, and he had an insatiable curiosity in life and the people he met. In the last year of his life, Davis ordered three different DNA kits, each one becoming more acceptable, with the third result showing his ancestry as 98.1 percent Finnish. He didn't need to order a fourth.

Davis is preceded in death by his parents Bill and Mary; sister Ruth; brother-in-law Harris; wife Karen; nephew Zach; and many cousins and other family. He is survived by his wife Stacey; sons Bill (Arja) and Adam (Marnie) Helberg; daughter Heidi (Cory) Wendland; grandchildren Emily (Steve) Krueger, Andrew Wendland, and Carle, Danelle, Isabelle and Liliana Helberg; great-grandchildren Otto and Livvy Krueger; nieces Michelle Bende and Dawn Davis; Helberg and Oja cousins; father- and mother-in-law Myron and Lois Carlson; brothers-in-law Paul (Randi), Andrew, and Joel (Emily) Carlson; nieces Bailey, Danae and Piper Carlson; and nephew Ryan Carlson.

Davis's life will be celebrated at a "sail away" at Pier B Resort in Duluth Monday, Nov. 12, beginning at 10:30 a.m. with a time to gather as family and friends until the 11:30 service.

To honor his commitment to the Esko community, the family asks that donations be made to the Esko Educational Foundation and the Davis Helberg Scholarship. Donations can be sent to Esko Educational Foundation, PO Box 27, Esko MN 55733.

Davis's family would like to express their gratitude for the outstanding care provided by the Essentia Health Hospice team, especially Nancy Flynn. Gratitude as well to Drs. Peter Kebbekus and Ken Dornfeld, Kim Thompson and the entire Essentia Health Cancer Center staff.


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