Legendary ski coach Joe Nowak remembered
Optimistic that he would kick his health problems to the very end, legendary ski coach, outdoorsman, teacher and friend Joe Nowak left behind a litany of legacies when he died Thursday, Oct. 27, at the age of 88.
As a jumper, Nowak set 11 ski jump records in the United States, Europe and Canada. He even has a ski hill in LaRiviere, Canada, named after him: the Nowak Express.
As head coach of the Cloquet High School ski team, he — assisted by Nordic coach Mike Marciniak and alpine coach John Luomala — coached the Cloquet High School boys ski teams to 13 state championships in a 15-year period.
Cloquet residents can also thank Nowak for Pine Valley, where runners and walkers enjoy wooded trails in the summer and Nordic skiers and ski jumpers occupy the park throughout the winter months. Nowak was the man who envisioned what became the hub of skiing in Cloquet, then made it happen by requesting many donations from area businesses and recruiting volunteers to help build and shape the park.
“[Pine Valley] is something Cloquet never would have had if Joe never came to Cloquet,” said Rick Nelson, a friend and long ago protegee.
As a teacher, he was ahead of his time, said Rick’s brother, Denny Nelson. “Not everything was from a book, he was more hands on,” said Denny. “He was very committed to kids learning in his science classes.”
Nowak was also an avid outdoorsman. He hunted. He fished. He took kids hunting and fishing. He started an archery club at Pine Valley. He helped found and was involved in the local fly fishing group.
“He really instilled my interest in the outdoors,” added Denny, noting that Joe used to take him, Brent and Scott Smith and the Quinn boys hunting for sharptail grouse and pheasant, duck and deer. “In fact, I’m duck hunting right now. And this weekend I’ll be deer hunting at the cabin I built in the place Joe first took us deer hunting.”
Cloquet’s Bill Stohlberg recalls how the second floor of Joe’s cabin north of Cloquet was “nothing but mattresses, wall to wall,” so all the kids he took hunting and fishing would have a place to sleep.
“I also remember hearing that Joe skied at a meet in Canada and they introduced him as ‘The guy who taught the birds how to fly,’” Stohlberg said.
NOWAK THE JUMPER
Born and raised in Duluth with eight brothers — he was No. 7 — Joe Nowak learned all the basics with his older brothers on the hill behind their house. But he took it to another level after he joined the Duluth Ski Club at Chester Bowl in 1944 as a teenager, at the urging of friends that he’d met while hunting and fishing. Nowak took secon
It was the heyday of ski jumping in the United States and ski jumping was a popular sport for competitors and fans.
Nowak began competing in 1945 at age 16 and ultimately set several records for the Duluth Ski Team, including taking second place in total points at a competition at Chester Park. In 1946, at the age of 17, Nowak placed second in a national ski meet in Colorado in the “C class,” and in 1947, he won the “B class” city title in Duluth.
Longtime friend Brent Smith said Joe was very proud of his Chester Park roots and happy to represent northern Minnesota as he traveled around the country and the world to compete. He was especially proud of winning the Guy R. Olson trophy, which he achieved after winning the Duluth city jumping competition three times.
When Smith asked Nowak what he would choose as a “do over” if he could, out of all his jumps, Nowak chose the time he set the hill record at the Fond du Lac jump in Duluth.
The way he told it, Nowak had set the record with his first jump, and a judge had told him to take it easy on his second so he wouldn’t fall.
“He said the judge was right, but he’d always wondered what would have happened on that second jump if he’d really gone for it,” Smith said.
While attending college, Nowak was drafted into the Army during the Korean War but was stationed in Germany. Once there, he was asked to compete on the U.S. Ski Team. Nowak went to the regional competition in Garmisch, Germany, where he won the regional meet in 1953. He also broke the hill record at the jump in Berchtesgaden in Bavaria — sailing some 400 feet.
He kept a frame full of ski medals in his room at Barnes Care Assisted Living facility in Esko as a reminder of his many accolades and could still identify each one only a month before he died.
Nowak was a decorated skier throughout his career. Even after he started coaching in Cloquet, Nowak still jumped. He set a hill record in Winnipeg, Canada at the age of 40. He won five consecutive jump meets from 1953 to 1955, and held a top 10 rating from 1951 to 1959. He attended the Olympic trials in 1951, 1955 and 1960 and the World Team trials in 1954, 1958 and 1962. He ski jumped for the last time in 1970 and was inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame in 2008.
MAKING PINE VALLEY
Pine Valley celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, and Nowak helped tell the origin story in a Pine Journal article that October.
At the time, Minnesota high school ski teams competed in three categories — Nordic and alpine skiing, along with ski jumping — and the scores were added together to determine team rankings. When Nowak arrived to coach and teach in Cloquet in 1958, the skiers were training in three different places: the jumpers at Gillette’s Hill (west of what is now Applebee’s), the alpine skiers on hill by Leech School and the cross country skiers at the golf course.
During his first year of coaching, Nowak concluded that Cloquet skiers lacked the type of competition jump that would develop a well-rounded team. He started scouting around for a location that would fit all three ski events.
In 1961, forester Ed Jankowski led Nowak to a hill southwest of the Cloquet Armory that had considerable promise. An appeal was launched to Northwest Paper Company, who owned the land. Northwest Paper offered the entire 40-acre plot to be used for skiing if the city of Cloquet would accept the land as a park and pay for insurance.
Turning a 40-acre plot of woods into a ski recreation area took a huge amount of volunteer work and donations. And it was Nowak who pulled it all together, because he had a vision and he wasn't shy about asking.
"When I look back, that was remarkable," Denny Nelson said. "The whole thing evolved by connecting with the right people to get that vision of what Pine Valley became. Joe was great at accessessing resources to accomplish what he had in mind."
With the guidance of the Cloquet Park Board and Nowak designing the jump, hill and cross country trails, plans got underway, with the skiers themselves cutting brush and weeds on weekends and during after-school work parties.
In the fall of 1961, the skiers themselves erected a temporary wooden ski jump. The network of trails through the wooded acreage of the park was created, and cross country skiing practice began the following January, coinciding with the first United States Ski Association (USSA) jump meet to be held there.
A cinder block chalet was added in fall 1962, much of it accomplished once again through donated time and labor, and lights added to the ski jump. The Cloquet Ski Club was established that same year, with Nowak paying the USSA fees for the 15 members out of his own pocket.
In spring 1963, Nowak was able to secure enough steel to build a 40-meter ski jump from Duluth Mesabe and Iron Range Railroad as they dismantled their water towers in Proctor. An accompanying 15-meter jump (now 20 meters) for beginners was also built adjacent to the larger jump. That December, it was Nowak who took the opening ride on the big jump — and the rest became history. A slalom hill with a rope tow was added as well.
Later that ski-jumping place was named the “Joe Nowak Ski Area,” and still is.
NOWAK THE COACH
The Cloquet team won every state meet from 1965 through 1971, took third in 1972 and then first again each year from 1973 through 1976 and first for jumping after they separated the events in 1977.
“I was so happy after the first [meet]. We knew how to do it,” Nowak told Pine Journal intern Anja Maijala about coaching the high school ski team at his 88th birthday party this summer. “We put all the points together, and all of a sudden you’re a state champion.”
He was a truly “charismatic” coach, said Mike Randall, who would go on to compete in the Sarajevo Olympics and World Championships in the Nordic combined event, which combines ski jumping and Nordic skiing.
Randall said he met Joe when he was 5, and fell in love with ski jumping and, a couple years later, Nordic skiing. He said Nowak would always search him out after a competition with some brief words of advice and encouragement, no matter if he was competing as an elementary school kid, Junior Nationals or on the U.S. ski team.
"He made sure to go out his his way, whether you sank or you won," Randall said.
Denny Nelson said Nowak could "get the best out of the kids he was working with."
"He was very patient and positive, optimistic," Denny said. "He was definitely one of a kind ... just think how many kids he's influenced."
Even jumpers from other teams used to find Nowak after meets and ask for his advice.
“Joe made it fun,” said Rick Nelson, who met Nowak for the first time when he was 11 years old and just a kid who liked to ski and jump. “We had hot dog tournaments, movie nights where he would show ski films, and snow days at Pine Valley. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, that place was packed with people skiing and jumping or playing broomball on the court in the dip between the jumps and the slalom hill.”
Nelson jumped on the high school team from eighth through 12th grade. He was the state champion jumper in 1966 and 1967 with teammate (and neighbor) Tim Schilling in second, and second to Schilling in 1965. Both went on to college at Lake Tahoe, where they continued their jumping career.
Brent Smith also jumped for Nowak, and cross country skied for Marciniak.
“I was not a good jumper, no matter how hard Joe tried,” Smith said with a chuckle. Smith was another of Joe’s “adopted kids,” and did a lot of hunting and especially fishing with Nowak.
“He was very interested in you as a person, your interests, your activities, way more than just what you were doing on a jump or ski trail,” Smith said, adding that Nowak was offered a job coaching the U.S. ski jumping team but turned it down to stay in Cloquet.
Loyalty was important to Nowak.
Smith added that his Catholic faith was also important to Joe, who attended Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Cloquet up until his death. If he was up at the cabin with a gaggle of boys on a Sunday, Nowak would throw all the Catholic boys in the car or truck and take them off to church, said Smith. Smith repaid the favor after Nowak moved to Barnes Care, bringing Nowak to Mass whenever he felt up to it and as recently as a month or two ago.
Smith pointed out with a chuckle that punctuality was not one of Nowak’s strong points.
“He’d say he was picking you up at 4 p.m., and you could start getting ready at 4:30 and look out the window at about a quarter to five,” said the retired Esko teacher and CEC Nordic coach, who said he knew in junior high that he wanted to teach and coach skiing when he grew up, just like Coach Nowak.
Nowak never married. His skiers were his kids.
“Joe would joke, ‘I have no time to get married, I have all these kids,’” said Randall, stressing just how many of those kids remained lifelong friends with Nowak.
Pine Valley might have gotten in the way of marriage too, Nowak once admitted, noting that he was dating a very nice young woman named Barb (Nelson) from Duluth at about the time the ski hill came into existence, and he got very busy with that and the two of them went their separate ways.
Barb later married and raised two children with her husband, who died about 10 years ago.
“The same people who introduced Barb and Joe in the 1960s reintroduced them,” Smith said. “So for the last seven years they’ve been seeing each other again. They were really fun together. She would play piano and they’d sing, or just sit and do crossword puzzles together or go out and eat or whatever.
“She was an important part of the last few years of his life.”
One of the funnier excursions of his last couple years of life involved a trip to the movies to see "Eddie The Eagle," about a British man who wasn't really qualified, but who jumped for Britain in the Olympics.
"It was a really nice outing," said Randall, "probably our last together. It was very memorable."
On one of his last visits to see his Joe, Larry Nowak took his brother to St. Anne’s Residence in Duluth, thinking that he might like a busier, more social place to live.
But he could see that Joe didn’t like it.
“He liked his place here,” said Larry, referring to Barnes Care, where Joe Nowak lived his last two years. “He told me, ‘I like my ski hill here.’”
“It’s almost like his tombstone,” Larry added.
Pine Valley is, indeed, a living monument to Nowak, from the ski jumps that tower over the city, to the trails that meander over rolling hills and urban forest, to the sign that bears his name.