The Denfeld Hall of FameThe history of the Denfeld Hall of Fame and biographies of its first 12 members.
By: Joe Vukelich, Duluth Budgeteer News
In 1966, six Denfeld men (Jerry Myles, Ed Martini, Clarence Myles, Don Derbyshire, Frank Puglisi and Harry Munger) gathered together to start a “Denfeld Sports Hall of Fame.” They decided that inductees would be eligible 10 years after graduation.
They developed a list of 65 men and narrowed it to 24 before inducting 12 members.
In 1970, eight more were added to the original list.
In 1996, Denfeld’s Distributive Education Club of America class chose as its yearly theme “community and tradition.” They invited a seven-alumnus screening committee to help them select nine candidates. Post-Denfeld contributions for men and women were considered.
In 2004, the Denfeld Alumni Association (DAA) received permission to take over management of the Denfeld Hall of Fame. Qualifications expanded to athletic, professional and community/ altruism. The goal was to raise money from alumni to make plaques for the previous 29 inductees and induct a new class.
After four years, the DAA has raised enough to meet its goal, and elected 10 new people to the Denfeld Hall of Fame.
They’re planning a double celebration, both to mark the induction of 10 new members into the Hall and to celebrate the 100th graduating class from a high school in West Duluth.
The Hall of Fame event runs from 2 to 4 p.m Saturday, Aug. 1, in the Denfeld Auditorium.
At that time, the previous 29 inductees into the Denfeld Hall of Fame and/or their families, are coming back home. In addition, they are going to welcome 10 new people into the Denfeld Hall of Fame for their induction the same day.
The second event is an all-class dance in the Denfeld gym from 7 to 10:30 p.m.
Music from the 1940s-2000s will be provided.
Both events are free to the public with donations accepted.
Denfeld Hall of Fame Class of 1966
Lawrence Bernard, 1924
Lawrence was an all-conference halfback in football, a forward in basketball and captain of the track team. Lawrence led our football team to one of its most outstanding seasons ever going 7-0-0 and outscoring our opponents 262-6. The season ended losing the northern Minnesota championship by a field goal, but the entire Denfeld backfield was named all-conference. Lawrence was named by Coach Hunting to his “Dream Team.”
Lawrence and his class left a great football legacy at Denfeld as we played for championships all three years the class of 1924 was here. In 1922, we played for the region championship, in 1923, we went 5-2-1 and played for the state championship and in 1924 was the 7-0 team that played for the region championship.
Don Derbyshire, 1925
Don was a three-year football star who was all-conference in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. As a halfback, he led Denfeld to the state championship game in ’23, region title game in ’24 and city/region titles in ’25. Derbyshire’s impact as a sophomore was so important that the Duluth paper reported that if the sophomore sensation hadn’t injured his leg early in the 1922 (class of ’23) state championship game, the catches he made for short gains would’ve turned into touchdowns.
In a 1976 article published in the Duluth News-Tribune entitled; “Football is tradition at Denfeld”, Derbyshire commented on the 1920s Denfeld football successes. Remembering that Don went to the first Denfeld (at the West Jr.-Mac Arthur site), he recalled practicing next to the school with the sidewalk being the out-of-bounds on one side and an empty gravel lot and sand on the other.
“You had to be crazy to play football. I broke my nose eight times, broke my ribs and injured my right hip,” he said.
Don continued giving back to the community by becoming supervisor of the Good Fellowship Club in Morgan Park for many of his adult years. He touched many lives in that capacity and was viewed as a father-figure by many.
Wally Gilbert, 1917
Wally may be Denfeld’s greatest all-around athlete. He was a star on the first football team that won the city championship. He scored the only touchdown in the first Denfeld–Central football game in which we won, 6-0. The game started the Denfeld-Central rivalry which would last most of the century when a Central football player and a West Duluth youth started taunting each other and a Denfeld student came to the West Duluth boys defense. Suddenly, a fight started and the Central players came to their teammates aid and the Denfeld players came to their fan’s aid. The 1,000 person fight took the Minnesota National Guard’s Calvary Division from the Armory to break up the fight. The Duluth paper reported that when Denfeld and Central play next year it would be a contentious game.
Wally went on to be captain of three sports at Valpariso University, played basketball with touring pro teams as a forerunner to the NBA, played fullback for the Duluth Eskimos in the early days of pro football and reached the major leagues in baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers where he was selected on their “All-Time Brooklyn Dodgers Team” at third base, as selected by The Sporting News. Wally’s stunning athletic career had him come in contact with some of America’s sports legends like Babe Ruth, Ernie Nevers and Jim Thorpe, to name a few.
When Wally was inducted to the Duluth Sports Hall of Fame he was called “Duluth’s All-Time Greatest Athlete” and is credited with starting the Denfeld tradition of alums coming back to the school/community and giving advice/clinics to Western Duluth students.
Walt Hunting, coach
Walt was one of the greatest coaches in America from 1927-1955. He won city, district, region and state championships in golf, basketball, baseball and football, but made himself a legend coaching football at Denfeld. In 28 years as our football coach, he had close to a 70% winning percentage, 14 city titles, 6 undefeated teams, 4 unofficial and one official state championship. In 1935, fans would yell; “Here come Hunting’s Hunters, which became the permanent nickname of the school.
Walt was an All-Conference football player at Lawrence College, a World War I veteran and coached Stevens Point High School basketball team to a state title. In addition, he coached their football team and later, the Stevens Point Teachers College team before arriving at Denfeld High School in 1927.
In his first year as coach here, we went undefeated, outscored our opponents 131-12 and won the mythical state title. For many years the season produced similar statistics and are reflected in many of the statistics of other Denfeld Hall of Famers in this program. His teams were undefeated in (the autumn of) 1927, 1935, 1942 and 1948. Undefeated with one tie in 1938 and 1943 (the 1943 team went 4-0-1 and outscored our opponents for the season 79-0! Obviously, that will be a national record that can never be broken, only tied). Walt’s teams rolled up such impressive records and statistics by the late 1930’s that Denfeld had to schedule two to three games a year (out of an 8 game schedule) against out-of-state teams.
He attended Knute Rockne’s football clinic and then moved the traditional “T” formation backfield to a “Y” formation and the success of that lead him to be asked to write for a national publication, the Athletic Journal. It was “considered one of the highest honors available to a high school coach”, reported the Duluth newspaper.
At the end of his career, he was asked by Duluth newspaper journalist Runcie Martin about naming a Denfeld all-star team. Hunting was, “Hesitant…he compromises by saying ‘I’d like to match my mythical team-at the same age and in peak form-against any college team in the country.’ ” This has become known as his “Dream Team” or Denfeld all-star team from 1927-1955. In addition to the boys that are listed in this hall of fame program, he also added Cliff Holmes, “Fat” Johnson, Earl Thorpe, Dave Piering, Kenny Sorenson, George Sommers, “Slish” Anderson and John Cameron. Also, he was asked to coach in the state’s first north-south game and coached the north to a victory.
In conclusion, while his sports honors are legendary, it is the personal comments about Walt’s character that stand out. Denfeld football legend Wally Smith called coach Hunting “probably the finest man I ever met” in 1954 and in 1993 added “like a father to me”. His obituary by the Duluth newspaper stated; “his former pupils and athletes rose to prominence and without exception all of them gave Walt Hunting much credit for building the foundation of their success”. Two men told the DAA that they remember their fathers near tears at Walt’s death and another stood to attention at the mention of his name and made it clear he’d be honored to pass long Walt Hunting stories…and that was 50 years after Walt’s death. Perhaps the most fitting tribute was during his 25th anniversary of coaching at Denfeld assembly, in 1952, when it was said; “It isn’t championships won that make Walt Hunting great. Nobody could be associated with him and not be better for it. Walt Hunting symbolizes everything great about America.”
Ironically enough, if Walt’s wife, Ilene, hadn’t been a Central graduate who wanted to return to Duluth to raise a family, Denfeld would never have been named the Hunters.
Waldemar Johnson, 1924
Waldemar spoke seven languages and taught Swedish and French at Denfeld from 1931-1970 and coached cross country and track and field for 38 years. He won the Shot Put State Championship in his senior year and coached many athletes who went to state tournaments including the 1949 State Track Champions.
Waldemar enjoyed merging academics with athletics, frequently speaking different languages with his athletes during practice and in competitions. A fitting tribute was from Denfeld alum, Clifford Ericson, to the family; “It is difficult to grasp, even now, that the vital combination of tongue, sinew and heart—that he was—could ever be stilled. It would be a giant task to count the lives he touched, both in the classroom or athletic field. In this sense he has achieved an immortality to which most of us can only hope to aspire”.
Ray King, 1934
Ray helped lead the football team to a 6-1 record his senior year as we outscored our opponents 182-53. Though five (of the 11) offensive team made all-conference, Ray led our attack scoring 53 of our 182 points. Ray went on to become an All-American at the University of Minnesota and was named by coach Hunting to his “Dream Team.”
Frank Larson, 1930
Frank “Butch” Larson played basketball and was captain of the track and football teams. Butch went on to play football at the University of Minnesota where he was a two-time All-American in 1933 and 1934, where he helped lead the Gophers to the National Championship. He was on coach Hunting’s “Dream Team” and was selected as one of the top ten athletes of the twentieth century.
Frank coached at Central until World War II and after the war lead the Duluth Jr. College team to the “Little Rose Bowl” game in 1948. Also, he coached the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League in the early 1950’s. He taught at and coached International Falls High School to nine conference championships and one state title from 1952- 1973.
William McNelis, 1922
William was a four year starter, played quarterback and was named all-conference his senior year. William helped lead the football program to prominence. In 1919, we only won one game though it set an all-time DHS record for largest victory, 125-0 over Proctor! By 1922, our 5-3 record was good enough to play for the region championship as we outscored our opponents 224-61.
He was All-Conference in basketball and the Oracle stated;“…he is beyond doubt the best basketball man that Denfeld has ever turned out.” He scored half of his team’s points in his junior and senior seasons.
William came back to Denfeld as a teacher and started the first official “pep club” for students and refereed basketball games. William is yet another of the many Hunters who came back to the school and gave his professional life to Denfeld.
Leo Method, 1924
Leo was a three-time all-conference tackle in football who was on the great early 1920’s teams (the 5-3 1922 region finalists, the 5-2-1 1923 team that played for the state title and the 7-0-0 1924 team that lost the region final). He was named to coach Hunting’s “Dream Team.” In addition, he was on the track team.
Leo went to the University of North Carolina and played football. The university made a ring for him after he scored a key touchdown. He stayed to coach at the University of North Carolina after graduation.
Rudy Monson, 1947
Rudy scored 23 points in Denfeld’s 46-44 state championship basketball game in 1947. He was selected All-State in basketball, football and track.
Rudy was All-Conference at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for three consecutive years in basketball. He has been elected to two other halls of fame; UMD and the Minnesota Centennial Sports Hall of Fame as one of the best athletes in the state’s first 100 years.
Rudy was past president of the school of engineering and land surveyors and named most of the streets in the western Piedmont community. He also spent 35 years as member of the National Ski Patrol, is a private pilot and received a citation from the Secretary of Navy.
Frank Puglisi, 1925
Frank was captain and all-conference in track winning the All-City mile run. He also lettered in football and basketball. Frank returned to Denfeld as a teacher and coach for 37 years.
Frank was Walt Hunting’s assistant coach in football for nearly 30 years and became head coach after Mr. Hunting’s retirement from 1956-1960. He was basketball coach from 1949-1953 and track coach from 1951-1970. Soon thereafter, the all-city track meet was named in his honor. One of the lasting tributes to coach Puglisi is that every December about 200 of his former athletes (and some of their opponents) gather to have lunch and keep in touch. The group is called “Pug’s Club.”
Wally Smith, 1943
Named Denfeld’s Athlete of the Twentieth Century, Wally was a four year starter who lead the nation in scoring with 23 touchdowns in eight games his senior season helping the team go undefeated. His 50 career touchdowns remains a school record. He was invited to practice with pro football’s (NFL) New York Giants in between his junior and senior seasons. Denfeld’s coach Hunting not only named him to his “Dream Team”, but added at the end of his career, “I’ve seen many great players at Denfeld, but Smith was the best.” The University of Minnesota’s coach Bierman called Wally “the best recruit ever.”
Wally was awarded the Purple Heart and Presidential citation for bravery at the Battle of Tarawa Island during World War II. Duluth newspapers reported on the severity of his wounds and subsequent survival. Relieved he lived, Coach Hunting commented; “We might’ve known Wally would be in the thick of a fight like that. He likes the going tough.” Wally visited coach Hunting at his house upon his return.
Wally became a legend at Denfeld before he ever attended school here! While in the ninth grade at Lincoln Jr., Wally busted loose and scored the only touchdown in a 7-0 victory over Central on Maroon and Gold Day in front of 12,000 people. Duluth sportswriter, Sid Peterson, called Wally’s performance that night the greatest individual performance he ever saw. Twelve years after his graduation, the Duluth newspaper commented, “Whenever football followers gather in these parts, one name bobs to the top of the list…Wally Smith, Head Hunter of them all.”
Wally is the only Hunter who’s been written about in every decade since he graduated by Oracle’s and Criterion’s. The Duluth newspaper concluded at the end of Wally’s high school career, “So long, kid and good luck for someday you’ll probably become a saga at Denfeld.”
Look for more Hall of Famers in future issues of the Duluth Budgeteer News.
~ Written by Joe Vukelich