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Legendary Cloquet ski coach and jumper Joe Nowak dies at age 88

The Cloquet boys team was the 1963 state champs. Nowak is holding the trophy, back row center. Pine Journal file art1 / 6
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Joe Nowak ski area dedication3 / 6
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Nowak with his former protegee Rick Nelson at a Pine Valley ski jump meet in 2012. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com5 / 6
Nowak with Cloquet's Franny Slater at a ski jumping meet in Coleraine, Minn. Nowak took an interest in the young jumper and gave her some coaching tips and lots of encouragement in 2012-13. She may have been the last jumper in a long line of ski jumpers coached by Nowak.6 / 6

Legendary Cloquet ski coach Joe Nowak died Thursday night, Oct. 27, 2016. He was 88.

Nowak had been in declining health for some time. Funeral services for Nowak are Thursday, Nov. 3, at Queen of Peace Church with visitation at 10 a.m. and the funeral service at 11 a.m. A lunch and visitation will follow with burial at Sunrise Cemetery in Duluth.

Nowak had a lasting impact on Cloquet and its residents.

Although he was born and raised in Duluth, Cloquet got lucky when Nowak was hired as a middle school science teacher in 1958. Not only we gain a great teacher, we got a world-class ski jumper to coach the Cloquet skiers.

By the end of his coaching career, Nowak — with the help of Nordic coach Mike Marciniak and alpine coach John Luomala — coached the Cloquet High School boys ski teams to 14 state championships (13 of those championships came in a 15-year period). His teams whipped such powerhouses as Edina High School. The Edina ski coach complained that Edina had sent its teams to train during the summers in Chile in South America, but still they could not beat Nowak’s Cloquet skiers.

“I was so happy after the first [meet]. We knew how to do it,” Nowak said about coaching the high school ski team. “We put all the points together, and all of a sudden you’re a state champion.”

In addition to his coaching skills, citizens can also thank Nowak for Pine Valley, Cloquet’s gem of a park where runners and walkers enjoy wooded trails in the summer and Nordic skiers and ski jumpers occupy the park throughout the winter months.

Pine Valley celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, and Nowak helped tell the story in a Pine Journal article.

At the time, ski teams competed in three categories — Nordic and alpine skiing, along with ski jumping — and the scores were added together to determine team rankings. During his first year of coaching at Cloquet, he concluded that Cloquet skiers lacked the type of competition jump that would develop a well-rounded team. The existing 20-meter jump was located at Gillette’s Hill (just west of what is now Applebee’s restaurant).

“With visions of putting together a championship ski team,” Nowak told Pine Journal publisher Wendy Johnson, “we searched the Cloquet area for a site that would allow a ski jump to produce flights of 30-40 meters to meet the standards of the Minnesota High School League.”

Several suitable sites were found but proved to be unavailable until finally, in 1961, forester Ed Jankowski led Nowak to a hill southwest of the Cloquet Armory that proved to have considerable promise. The elevation was measured and it met the necessary height, so an appeal was launched to Northwest Paper Company, who owned the land, in the hopes of finding training grounds for the fledgling jumping team. 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 a suitable insurance program. With the guidance of the Cloquet Park Board led by Al Spafford, plans got under way, 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, and high school coach Herb Drew was commissioned to paint the name on an eight-foot by six-foot board which was later nailed to the take-off of the temporary ski jump. A network of trails through the wooded acreage of the park was also established, 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 were 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, the local ski group 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 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.

Read next week’s Pine Journal for a more complete story about Nowak, who was also a champion ski jumper in the U.S. and Europe. Nowak was inducted into the Marshall School Hall of Fame in 1946, the Minnesota Nordic Ski Coaches Hall of Fame in 1978, and the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame in 2008. Former Pine Journal intern Anja Maijala contributed to this story.