Great Lakes shipping legend Davis Helberg passes away

A Great Lakes legend – Davis Helberg– died peacefully at home in Esko on Wednesday after a courageous fight with cancer. 

He formerly directed the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, was a vessel agent with Guthrie-Hubner and a reporter with the Duluth News Tribune. His obituary will be published on Friday.

In 2003, Lake Superior Magazine named him its annual Achievement Award winner. A story about Helberg that ran in the magazine said:

Most anyone who knows Davis Helberg has a funny story connected to him or remembers a funny story that Davis has told. In fact, we’d love to give Davis an award just based on his storytelling ability.

But in considering Davis Helberg for this year’s Lake Superior Magazine’s Achievement Award – our annual honoring of an individual or organization that has made a lasting contribution to the whole of Lake Superior – we found loads of reasons to honor the retired executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

There is no doubt that during his nearly 25-year tenure as the head of the authority, Davis and his staff have paved the way for an improved shipping industry on the lake. Tonnages and handling of certain commodities into the port of Duluth-Superior hit records during Davis’ time at the helm.

During his tenure the authority used its broad development powers to assist more than 50 businesses, which now offer about 1,075 family-wage jobs on port authority properties.

Under Davis’ watch, the authority worked on environmental protections, striving regionally, nationally and internationally with ship owners to curb the threat of exotic species through development of common standards governing ballast-water exchange. In its lead sponsorship of the educational program River Quest, the port authority has encouraged some 800 area sixth-graders each year to learn about the importance of preserving the St. Louis River estuary.

But wait, there’s more.

In reviewing Davis Helberg’s style in office, we see a template for working with diverse goals and groups. Not one simply to bend with the political or social winds, Davis nonetheless tried through humor and logical persuasion to win over adversaries or to open discussions on issues.

If hard work wins any awards (and we think it should), then acknowledgement by Davis’ port authority staff that the boss was usually the one who turned out the office lights – sometimes late at night – points out Davis’ commitment. It is no wonder then that Davis Helberg’s name, we are told, is synonymous with Great Lakes maritime shipping in many national and international circles.

Finally, we discovered that many of the worthwhile projects that Davis tackled in his job, he pursued into his personal time. Food for Peace is a fine example. Initially involved because the local ports handled tons of grain destined for starving countries, Davis continued to develop international contacts that helped to pave the way for other critical programs. In “retirement,” he still cultivates those contacts for the benefit of this and other aid programs.

“Davis devoted an awful lot of time doing this. It consumed a lot of his time. It’s a part that people didn’t know about,” says Peter Strzok, who was Food for Peace country director in Burkina Faso. “I think it’s pretty damn noble.”

Another example of extra duty has been Davis’ generosity of time to and for students of the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Transportation and Logistics program. He has been an industry mentor, a shipping tour guide and is an advisory board member.

The list, of course, goes on, which is why Davis Helberg has received most every honor to which a port director could aspire.

“Davis Helberg may not need one more award for his overflowing awards shelf,” says Lake Superior Magazine Editor Konnie LeMay, “but we need to acknowledge him as a role model for high standards and achievement in his work for the Lake Superior, and Great Lakes, community.”

Make room on that shelf, Davis Helberg, for Lake Superior Magazine’s 2003 Achievement Award. Congratulations. 

A memorial service is being planned for Monday, Nov. 12 in the ballroom at Pier B Resort on the Port of Duluth-Superior waterfront.