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Former ski coach memorialized with podium donation

Brian Johnson presents to Cloquet High School a Lumberjacks podium he made in honor of former ski jumping coach Joe Nowak, who died two years ago. Johnson made the podium from reclaimed wood donated by retired Nordic coach Glen Sorenson (standing left of Sorenson) and with support from former Cloquet ski champions Rick and Denny Nelson, Brent Smith and Joe’s brother, Gerald Nowak (standing right). Jana Peterson/ jpeterson@pinejournal.com
Coach Nowak memorialized with podium donation

Former assistant Cloquet ski coach Brian Johnson presented a handmade podium to Cloquet High School during the School Board meeting Monday, Aug. 13.

Flanked by former ski jumpers and skiers Rick and Denny Nelson and Brent Smith, along with recently retired Nordic coach Glen Sorenson, Johnson donated the podium in memory of legendary Cloquet ski jumping coach Joe Nowak, who passed away two years ago.

By the end of his coaching career here, Nowak and his fellow coaches had taken the Cloquet High School boys ski teams to 14 state championships — 13 of those in a 15-year period.

He was also responsible for persuading the Northwest Paper Co. in 1961 to donate the 40 acres of land that now houses Pine Valley park, with its ski jumps and recreational trails, as well as the two hockey shelters next-door.

Johnson was assistant coach to Nowak 50 years ago during part of that championship run. In addition to the Lumberjacks logo on the front of the podium, he also attached a Cloquet Ski Club medal to the side, next to the plaque remembering Nowak.

Afterward, Joe’s oldest brother, Gerald “Gerry” Nowak, told how Joe had made his final “jump.”

“A few hours before his heart stopped, I was sitting next to his bed and holding his hand, and I told him he was a great jumper, with his longest jump at 300 feet,” Gerry told the Pine Journal. “I told him: ‘Don’t be afraid to go, you’re about to make the great leap into heaven.’ He was unconscious, but he squeezed my hand.

“Then I told him: ‘Joe, you made a perfect landing,’ and his hand went limp. He skied off into heaven.”

Glen Sorenson, who taught with Johnson in Proctor and coached the Lumberjacks Nordic ski team for the past five years, had high praise for the ski program in Cloquet, from the kids program on the weekends through the high school teams.

“You should be appreciative of what you’ve got there,” he said. “The parental support and the community, it’s really a special and unique deal in this entire state. This is the state of skiing, it’s not just the state of hockey. I think it’s really cool that you’re honoring Joe.”

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