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Inaugural ‘Unity in Our Community’ draws a crowd, soaks superintendent

Students and their families from across Duluth’s school district were invited Monday to enjoy some music, eat some hotdogs, and more

John Magas, Superintendent of Duluth Schools, gives a thumbs up after getting dunked in the dunk tank
John Magas, superintendent of Duluth schools, gives a thumbs up after getting dunked in the dunk tank by Elijah Kinney on Monday during Duluth Public Schools’ “Unity in Our Community” event at Bayfront Festival Park.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Five or six kids had already tossed a few wayward shots at the dunk tank set up at Bayfront Festival Park on Monday, and Superintendent John Magas, perched over the hip-height tub of water, was getting pessimistic.

“I feel like I’m going to get wet,” he joked as Asher Harkness, 12, cocked his arm to throw.

Harkness rocked and fired three softballs at the tank’s target, each seemingly closer than the last. His fourth attempt clanged off the metal bull's-eye, but Magas didn’t go plunging into the water below and the few dozen spectators there groaned with disappointment.

But Harkness’ longtime friend and fellow baseball player Elijah Kinney, also 12, only needed one toss. His first and only attempt nailed the bull's-eye and, after a brief moment, sent the district's head administrator plunging down into the tank.

Superintendent of Duluth Schools John Magas pops out of the water after getting dunked
John Magas pops out of the water after getting dunked.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Harkness leapt onto Kinney’s back in celebration. They had briefly flirted with the notion that the game was rigged. Kinney didn’t think he was going to make his first throw – or even come close, he told the News Tribune.

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“And then when I hit it I was like, ‘How?’” he said excitedly. “And then I thought, ‘Oh, he didn’t go in,’ because it took a second, and then he went in, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh.’”

Both are set to be seventh graders at Ordean East Middle School when classes at the school district resume next week.

“Unity in Our Community” aims to bridge Duluth’s east-west divide.

The pair were at the park for the school district’s inaugural “Unity In Our Community” back-to-school get-together, which aims to bridge the city’s sometimes-testy east-west divide and emphasizes that the sprawling district is united under a common banner. The event is the brainchild of Assistant Superintendent Anthony Bonds, who spent Monday afternoon dashing around the grill and, later, helping emcee the event. It’s the district’s first.

Adrienne Kolenda, 7, soon to be a second grader at Congdon Park Elementary School, laughs as she zooms down the final slide on the inflatable obstacle course
Adrienne Kolenda, 7, soon to be a second grader at Congdon Park Elementary School, laughs as she zooms down the final slide on the inflatable obstacle course.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“We want Duluth to shine,” said Jill Lofald, who chairs the Duluth School Board. “What better way?”

About 1,000 people were on hand as the event moved briskly into its second hour Monday. The dunk tank was one of many attractions, which included a DJ, bouncy houses, representatives from a host of Duluth-area institutions, and, perhaps most importantly, free barbecue.

Jamie Smith, left, helps Jerome Strother, owner and grill sergeant of Rome’s Ribs, prepare hamburgers for folks waiting in line
Jamie Smith, left, helps Jerome Strother, owner and grill sergeant of Rome’s Ribs, prepare hamburgers for folks waiting in line during the Unity in Our Community event. Strother can prepare 40 burgers at a time in his convection smoker.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Go to school and learn something,” Jerome Strother, the “grill sergeant” of Rome’s Ribs, bellowed jokingly as he flipped burger after burger at a massive grill.

Leland Lundgren and his family quietly munched on some hot dogs in the grass nearby. Lundgren is set to be a fourth grader at Hermantown Community Schools, but was there with his stepmom Kate James and other family members.

James’ daughter is set to be a kindergartner at Congdon Elementary and her son is set to be a preschooler at Myers-Wilkins Elementary. James explained they wanted to get outside and have fun with the community.

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Leland Lundgren, 9, of Hermantown, takes a bite of the hot dog at Duluth Public School’s “Unity in Our Community” event
Leland Lundgren, 9, of Hermantown, takes a bite of the hot dog.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Back at the dunk tank, Eric Sanders said he and son Eli, who was the first kid to try and soak the superintendent, showed up to get out of the house.

“Since COVID we haven’t been doing too much,” Eric said. “It’s nice that they do the free food and stuff and give us all a chance to hang out and just interact with people.”

Superintendent of Duluth Schools John Magas touches the inside of the dunk tank after dropping in the water
John Magas touches the inside of the dunk tank after dropping in the water.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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Related Topics: EDUCATIONDULUTHDULUTH PUBLIC SCHOOLSDULUTH SCHOOL BOARD
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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