On Duluth: 'Rough' past doth a candidate make

Feel free to feel sorry for Duluth's pulled-themselves-up-by-their-loafers mayoral candidates. One spent at least three summers of his youth washing hearses and scraping gum from the undersides of school desks. The other lived the first year of h...

Feel free to feel sorry for Duluth's pulled-themselves-up-by-their-loafers mayoral candidates.

One spent at least three summers of his youth washing hearses and scraping gum from the undersides of school desks. The other lived the first year of his life in a home with no running water and no indoor plumbing.

Woe is them and their meager, humble beginnings.

But wowsers for voters because, come Nov. 6, no matter whom they cast a ballot for -- whether long-time businessman Charlie Bell or City Council-seasoned Don Ness -- they can be assured the strong roots of both candidates will present Duluth with a mayor as invested in and as impassioned about his city as pretty much any of his 33 predecessors.

No matter how dramatized the candidates' campaign bios may seem.


I mean, really, a house without running water or indoor plumbing? In the mid-1970s? In Duluth?

"I really don't know the whole story," Ness admitted this week when queried about the little house straight out of "Little House."

"I could ask my mom," he said. "It was in a rural part of the community, kind of out in the hinterlands."

But we "had a little pot-belly stove and an outhouse in the back yard," he insisted.

One harsh winter was about all the growing Ness family decided to endure in the house that time forgot. When Don was about a year old, his family set out for an apartment above a church in Lincoln Park/West End. Don's dad did maintenance at the church while running another church, a nondenominational congregation known as the Community Christian Fellowship. That church operated at several locations, the most prominent on Colorado Street in Lakeside where Vineyard Christian Fellowship now sits. His family moved a final time when Don was 4 or 5 to the East Hillside and "the only home I really remember at all from my childhood," Ness said.

"I was painfully shy growing up," he said. "Studious. I really enjoyed reading, and I loved sports and collecting baseball cards. We'd have these very elaborate systems set up for our backyard baseball and football games. I'd bring out a notebook and keep statistics about Wiffle ball games. I'd even compile those statistics and publish them for the neighborhood kids."

As nerdy as that sounds, Ness developed into a fine athlete. At Duluth Central High School, where three generations of his family attended before him, he played wide receiver for the football team and off guard for the basketball team, which finished third at the state tournament. He also was captain of Central's track team.

Not bad for a kid born on "a 30-degree-below-zero Duluth day," as Ness' campaign claims. But maybe Don should check with his mom on that, too: Duluth's low on Jan. 9, 1974, according to the National Weather Service, was actually minus 21.


The mercury dipped to plus-21 on Dec. 19, 1949, the day Bell and his twin sister, Kate, were born, the third generation of their West Duluth funeral home family. Bell's great uncle Hugh and grandfather Thomas had started Bell Brothers in 1912 or 1913.

Bell attended the long-gone Longfellow Elementary and then Laura MacArthur Elementary before being sent off to Shattuck, a college preparatory school in Faribault, Minn. "Peculiar story," Bell said. "At a parent-teacher conference for my older brother the teacher said [he] was not college material. He was in sixth grade! So my parents fumbled around and decided to send him to a college preparatory school. Then all of us were sent there."

Captain of the football, hockey and track teams at Shattuck, and president of the school's student council, Bell returned home during summers.

"I spent a lot of time down at Memorial Park, skating," he said. "Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts were really big in my life, too. I went to summer camp every summer. Never missed it."

He joined the family mortuary business when he was about 15 and spent a summer washing cars, his first real job.

"It was my second job that I really remember," Bell said. "When I was 16 I went to work for the schools for the maintenance crew. I chipped gum from underneath the desktops at Denfeld and shoveled ash from the ash pits." Denfeld was heated with a coal-burning furnace in those days.

"That's what really impacted my drive to go to college and to get a college degree," he said. "I never chewed gum after that. And I never bought my kids gum -- ever."

A real estate developer now, Bell hasn't forgotten his roots. He still lives in West Duluth.


"I'm a passionate person," he said when asked how his Duluth roots molded who he is today. "I've always enjoyed the challenge of problem-solving, I've always been a proactive person, and I've always been passionate about Duluth."

Ness, when asked the same question, said: "I have a deep passion for this community, in large part because of my upbringing. I'm willing to make sacrifices and put in long hours. The sense of history and my connections to Duluth and seeing how our very modest family has kind of played a role in the history of the community is a large part of who I am."

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