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Northland ski jumper, teacher, coach Joe Nowak dies at 88

One of the last links to the heyday of ski jumping in Northeastern Minnesota has died.

Joe Nowak, who set 11 ski jump records in the United States, Canada and Europe, coached Cloquet High School ski teams to 13 state titles and founded the Pine Valley Ski Area in Cloquet, died Thursday at Barnes Care in Esko. He was 88.

Born and raised in Duluth, Nowak began competing in 1945 at age 16 and won five straight ski jump meets in Duluth from 1953 through 1955. In a News Tribune story in 2008, Nowak said he was inspired by Duluthian George Kotlarek.

“When he won the national title in 1936, I was 7 and doing jumps from backyard snow bumps,” Nowak said. “I used single-groove pine skis with a strip through the center, held on by rubber bands cut from inner tubes.

“My brothers skied, and I just copied them. We had great skiers to watch and picked out who looked best in the air, and tried to do what they did.”

Nowak competed in U.S. Olympic ski jumping trials in 1951, 1955 and 1960 and the world team trials in 1954, 1958 and 1962 and was ranked in the top 10 among U.S. ski jumpers from 1951-59. He ski jumped for the last time in 1970 and was inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame in 2008.

Nowak brought his expertise to Cloquet in 1958, when he was hired as a middle school science teacher and he also coached the ski team.

Rick Nelson, 67, of Cloquet first came to know Novak when he took science in eighth grade. Nelson went on to compete as a ski jumper in four of Novak’s state championship teams over the next five years.

“Joe was a good ski jumper and we knew that, and we listened to him,” Nelson said on Saturday. “He never was married so we were basically his family, all the kids that he spent time with. … He was very giving of his time and giving of his knowledge.”

One of his three surviving brothers, Jerry Nowak of Duluth, agreed.

“He was so busy taking care of other people’s kids he didn’t have time to get married, that’s what he’d say,” said Jerry Nowak, 92. “He was a father to everybody in Cloquet.”

That extended to opening his cabin on Lake Nichols to young people, said Brent Smith of Carlton.

“The upper level was wall to wall mattresses, and he’d have a bunch of us up in the summer and it would be canoe races and water skiing,” said Smith, 60.

His brother was always fun to be around, Jerry Nowak said.

“He was quite a storyteller,” he said. “He was full of jokes. He was quite a guy.”

Smith’s older brother first introduced him to Nowak, he said, and by the time he was old enough he was also on the ski team. But although he tried, he didn’t take to ski jumping.

“He was extremely patient with me — never frustrated, never gave up, and I just wasn’t very good,” Smith said of Nowak.

Much better as a Nordic skier, Smith went on to teach elementary school and coach the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton cross country ski team. Nowak was his model, Smith said.

“I think Joe was the major reason I went into teaching,” Smith said. “He had a big impact on me choosing the profession that I did, and I think a lot of things that he did as a ski coach, I tried to emulate.”

Nowak had grown up near Chester Bowl, Nelson said, and believed there should be a similar all-purpose ski facility in Cloquet. Nowak founded and shepherded construction of the Pine Valley Ski Area, with ski jumping, downhill and cross-country skiing all in one 40-acre site, Nelson said.

The land and much of the materials and work were donated, Smith said, so there was little expense to taxpayers.

“Joe had a gift for doing this,” Smith said. “He was able to do it for basically free.”

The area also is used in summer with recreational trails and an archery course and serves as an outdoor science lab for Cloquet students, Nelson said.

The park now includes two hockey arenas, and the Alpine hill has been transformed to a snow tubing hill. The two ski jumps remain, Nelson said, although they get less use than in the past.

Nowak would consider Pine Valley his greatest legacy, Nelson said.

“Joe has been really proud of that,” he said.

Smith agreed.

“His lasting legacy in Cloquet will be the ski area,” Smith said. “He came to town in ’58 and Cloquet really didn’t have much for ski facilities.”

Pine Valley’s 50th anniversary was observed in 2011.

Nowak also has a legacy in a number of his former proteges who went on to coach ski jumping themselves in Colorado and other places, Nelson said.

Before coming to Cloquet as a teacher, Nowak had served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and had worked at Arco Coffee Co., Bell Telephone and IBM. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth and his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

He taught and coached in Cloquet for 26 years.

Nowak was one of nine brothers, three of whom survive.

He had been in declining health for the past couple of years, said his brother and friends.

But Smith, who is retired, said he values the chance he had to reconnect with Nowak over that time and to talk over the family relationship Nowak built with his charges.

“We fished with Joe, we hunted with Joe,” he said. “It was a much different relationship than just a ski coach that you would see from November to the end of February. … Many of us were fortunate enough to have spent basically year-around with Joe.”