Duluth has ‘The Will and the Way’

“I think Duluth is legitimately special,” Donn Larson said just days before The Will and the Way Volume IIwas scheduled for release.

Duluthians are unique in terms of their character and initiative, Donn Larson believes. As publisher of two books that examine the city’s amazing strides, he should know.

“I think Duluth is legitimately special,” he said just days before The Will and the Way Volume IIwas scheduled for release. Why do so many residents take leadership roles to improve the city? Perhaps the challenging climate forces them to be strong and aggressive, speculated the retired marketing pro, who once owned the Westmoreland Larson agency. Or maybe it's the large amount of opportunity that can be pursued in a place having so much green open space, along with stunning vistas of Lake Superior, Larson added.

The books are written by multiple authors who each profile developments that have impacted Duluth in significant ways. Volume I, released in 2004,emerged from conversations between Larson and Monnie Goldfine. They began by creating a list of positive developments that strongly improved the city after World War II. It was a period when Duluth (and many other American municipalities) transitioned from the heavy manufacturing associated with the wartime economy. Goldfine initially felt the information should be collected for the Historical Society.

“I said, ‘If we’re going to do all that work, it should be a real book,’” Larson recalled. The work took two years. While their book (they were co-publishers) wasn’t distributed a great distance beyond Duluth, “I like to think that here and there, there might have been somebody in some little town who got inspired by the achievements here,” he said.

Don Ness was among them, Larson learned in conversations with the former mayor. 

“When I read that first book, I was still on the city council. What struck me is these big projects that shaped Duluth over the years – and I wasn’t aware of the back story,” Ness explained. “It was interesting to see the mechanics and the importance of leadership and initiative to get these things off the ground. But even more important was the scope of ambition behind these projects.”

After a few informal chats, the two concluded that, more than a dozen years after Volume I, it was time for an update. Ness wasn’t a newcomer to publishing. He had the experience of writing and distributing his own book: Hillsider: Snapshots of a Curious Political Journey. Another common experience made them natural project partners: Both were elected to the Duluth City Council at age 29. During their careers, their backgrounds and extensive contacts gave them an inside view of who and what made the city go.

“We both independently sat down and wrote a list, then we merged them,” Larson said. He admitted it’s difficult to distill all of Duluth’s recent progress into a limited number of stories. Some, such as the construction of AMSOIL Arena and the Clyde Iron complex, were of the highest importance. But overall, Larson said, “I could make the case for almost everything in there.”

While many people may believe they know the whole story about key events, Ness found there’s much more to learn.

“The chapter about the St. Louis River by Bill Majewski was a real eye-opener. He brings a lifetime of experience and insight about what has happened. That experience was duplicated many times throughout the book – many voices came out from chapter to chapter,” he said.

Volume II was compiled much more quickly than the original – in one year instead of two. All of the stories were written by local residents who contributed their insight without charge. Ness, who has written his own book, described the effort as “a major undertaking and a labor of love.” For The Will and the Way, he said the volunteer effort is “coupled with a really deep and profound love of the community.”

“In other communities, there’s so much federal and state money and other big funders that projects just emerge and it feels effortless. Here, if people don’t rally behind an idea, because of the natural headwinds we face, it’s not going to happen. So when they do, there’s a community story behind that. I do think there’s that entrepreneurial spirit that’s fueled by a love of this place. Other communities probably have those elements, but it’s probably stronger here,” he said.

Both men anticipate a third volume will be published in the future.

“I certainly hope there’s a Volume III, and I hope I’m around to be a part of it,” Ness said.