Reunion marks 66th anniversary of tragic Duluth Dukes bus crash
Bernie Gerl took a phone call late last summer from a man looking to reunite lost history.
“Why, yes it does,” Gerl responded.
“I’m his nephew,” the man said.
Gerl nearly fell out of his chair.
On Thursday, 66 years to the day of the infamous Duluth Dukes’ bus crash of 1948, Gerl met his former manager’s daughter, Mary Patnode, at Wade Stadium before the Duluth Huskies’ Northwoods League game with the Waterloo Bucks. Nearly 30 relatives in all, from both families, gathered to watch the game and reminisce.
“It looks the same,” Patnode, 82, said as they entered Wade Stadium.
On July 24, 1948, the Duluth Dukes, at the time a minor league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, were traveling from Eau Claire, Wis., to St. Cloud when a truck carrying dry ice hit a rough spot in the rode, careened out of control and collided head-on with the team bus driven by Dukes manager George Treadwell, Mary’s father, close to the present-day site of Rosedale Mall near St. Paul. Treadwell was one of six to die from the crash, making it one of deadliest tragedies in baseball history.
While the crash is well documented, Gerl seems to having something new to share on his nearly annual trips to Duluth each summer. This year, the sharp-witted 87-year-old was carrying a recently discovered graphic photo of the rear of the burnt out bus he said originally appeared in the Brainerd Dispatch. Gerl was the last person pulled from that bus by a nearby farmer, with Gerl resisting the entire way.
The future Mary Patnode was with her mother, Evelyn, at the family home in Superior when they heard the news after their family doctor heard about the accident on radio and stopped by. It was hard for the teenager to comprehend.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Mary Patnode said. “At the time we didn’t know if dad had survived.”
While Gerl didn’t remember it, Patnode recalled meeting Bernie for the 50th anniversary of the crash on July 24, 1998. That also happened to be the night when Dukes pitcher Ila Borders made history by becoming the first woman to win a professional baseball game.
While the entourage made its way inside the stadium on Thursday, they paused in the hallway by a display with plaques honoring Bernie Gerl, the ’48 Dukes and a touching poem written about the team by a local 13-year-old girl who loved the Dukes and was heartbroken. Mary wasn’t a whole lot different than that girl at the time, except one of those Dukes was her dad.
They took photos of the display to save — and read — for later.
“If I tried to read that now, I’d start crying,” Mary Patnode said.
The group gathered in the reserved seats behind the backstop and waited for the game to start.
Not much had changed on the inside of Wade Stadium either, but Mary Patnode tapped Gerl on the shoulder and pointed to the Kennel Klub down the third-base line.
“That beer garden was never there,” Patnode said.
“No, but the 380-foot sign is still there,” Gerl said, pointing to center.
Gerl took a well-known photo of that distance marker after hitting a home run to dead center on opening day of the 1948 season. He said it was so cold he even saw some snowflakes that day.
“Opening day was always cold,” Patnode said.
Gerl said he and Treadwell had a special connection, with both being catchers. Gerl said he was strict but fair.
“George did what it takes four jobs to do now. He was it,” Gerl said. “He was a great baseball guy and a good man.”
Gerl said Treadwell was a private man who kept family and work separate. Gerl said that is why he never knew his manager had two children, but Mary said it was much more paternal than that. She was daddy’s little girl.
“I was a young teenager at the time and he didn’t want me around ballplayers,” Patnode said, inciting laughter from the rest. “You guys were so young and handsome.”
“That’s funny,” Gerl said, still laughing, “wait till I tell my wife that.”
Bruce Treadwell, George’s nephew, fascinated upon learning the family history, helped organize the meeting between Bernie and Mary on Thursday. One could tell it was one they cherished. Gerl still lives in his hometown of Joliet, Ill., while Patnode lives in Waterville, Ohio.
After her father died, Patnode said her mother, Evelyn Treadwell, went to work to support the family. Mary graduated from Cathedral High School in 1950. She married Jim Patnode of Superior in 1952. They eventually moved to Ohio so Jim could be closer to his job working on the Great Lakes ore boats. Even so, Mary said, she will always consider Superior her hometown.
George Treadwell is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Superior, and Mary Patnode dropped off flowers and paid her respects to her father days before her nostalgic trip to Duluth on Thursday.
“I made sure to take care of that first,” she said.