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Korby's Connections: Charlie is a diamond in the rough

Artistic masterpieces from Charlie Beck's handiwork dot the landscape of Carlton County. It doesn't stop there. His treasures can be found in several other states scattered across the country. His smile is contagious and, at 89 years old, he is living the good life in Wrenshall. This is the story of the infamous (Our Savior's League) retiree darts home run hitter ... Charlie Beck.

Charlie was born and raised in Carlton. He played high school football at guard and tackle, and was one of the fastest Bulldogs players. In January of 1953, his senior year, he signed up for the U.S. Navy. It was the height of the Korean War. He wanted to be on an aircraft carrier like his older brother was. Something went awry on his enlistment and he was called in March. Charlie got the quirk straightened out, so he didn't report for the Great Lakes naval training center in Illinois until June 6 ... the day after his high school graduation.

Beck was in the Navy for four years. After basic training, he had stints in Memphis, Tennessee, Norman, Oklahoma, and Kingsville, Texas.

"Doesn't sound like hot spots for an aircraft carrier, does it?" chuckled Charlie. Rather, he became an aircraft technician.

"Texas was one of the largest Allied naval flight training centers in the country. We had pilots from Canada, Norway, and other friendly countries learning how to fly U.S.-made planes," said Charlie proudly. He also became a trained member of the crash and firefighting unit.

After his service he returned to northeast Minnesota, and applied a few times to and was finally hired by the Northwest Paper Company in Cloquet. He started in maintenance, and soon moved to the blacksmith/weld shop. It was a partnership that lasted for 38 years.

Blacksmiths at the mill were responsible for repairing many of the tools used in loading and unloading timber from railcars, including broken logging pickaroons and tongs. It was a lot of added responsibility, but after a few years, he became his union's president.

"At one point, there were 400 members of my union, and we authorized a couple of strikes but they were not initiated," Charlie said. "I always appreciated that Northwest Paper and the union could come into a room ready for a brawl, but after lengthy discussions come out of the meeting room with a settlement and shaking hands."

It was during this time period that Beck married, raised a family and settled down in Thomson. He lived there for 45 years. He was also mayor for 10 years, and on the Thomson city council. Charlie had a blacksmith forge at his home too, and was always fixing or making something for neighborhood lunch pail farmers - clothesline poles, flag poles, sauna stoves (for his special Finnish friends), hitches, lawn ornaments and other items he repaired or built from scratch. Charlie also volunteered at the blacksmith shop at the Carlton County fairgrounds in Barnum for 14 years. He built many shepherd hooks and other plant hanging supports for faithful fair attendees.

Charlie and his wife have lived in their Wrenshall home for 18 years. He has lots of bird feeders and hanging plant supports in his backyard. "It made the newspaper, but a few years back, I planted some giant sunflower seeds. They grew from 13-15 feet tall ... it was impressive and quite the deal!"

The main reason I came out to Wrenshall was to find out more about Charlie's new love affair (don't tell his wife) with diamond willow. He makes beautiful walking sticks from the material. On a weekend several years ago, Carlton's Chuck Kramer asked Charlie if he was doing anything special and if he wouldn't mind accompanying him to look for this somewhat elusive wood. By rubbing hands on the willow tree usually found by a swamp, an expert can detect the likelihood of inner-core large or small "diamonds." The diamond-shaped segments of alternating colors are, most likely, a result of a fungus. It takes a keen eye to find these gems and many hours of sanding, peeling and carving to reveal the stick's beauty. They are a tough wood, perfect for walking sticks. Charlie figures he has already made over 80 walking sticks that are circling around the country, stating, tongue in cheek, "You might say with my career, I've gone from iron to wood."

But what about the dart league home run hitting? Babe Ruth, Harmon Killebrew and Mickey Mantle are all legendary home run hitters. Add to that list Charlie Beck. Even with a vision impairment, Charlie aims for the "blur" in the center of the target, which happens to be the HR mark. He once again led the darts league in round-trippers. Congratulations, Charlie!

Steve Korby's interest in writing goes back to when he was in fourth grade and editor of the Scan-Satellite school newspaper in Scanlon. He welcomes ideas for human interest stories and tales regarding Carlton County residents, projects, history, and plans c/o [email protected].

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