DeLaSalle alumnus guides students in painting mural of school, city history

| March 14, 2019 | 0 Comments

A mural depicting both the histories of DeLaSalle High School and of Minneapolis sits in the lobby of the school’s “A” building. It was painted by students under the direction of Joe Duffy, who graduated from the school in 1967. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

“Don’t go into art.”

That’s what Joe Duffy remembers people, including his parents, telling him back when he was trying to chart a career path. If he had listened, his alma mater, DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, would not have a 25-foot mural depicting its history and the history of the Mississippi River island on which it sits.

When Duffy attended the school in the 1960s, he developed a passion for art that he hoped would turn into a career. Eventually, it did. Going against the advice of others, he started Duffy & Partners, a graphic design firm in Minneapolis, in 1984 and now is passing it down to two of his adult children.

His success led the school in August 2018 to give him the first ever Brother Michael Collins Award, named for an influential DeLaSalle president and designed to honor achievements in the arts. From there, the school asked him about doing an art project, and he suggested the mural, which was completed in December and dedicated Feb. 12 at an all-school assembly. About 30 students did the painting, all of whom have artistic interest and talent. The mural is located in the lobby of the school’s “A” building.

The project was a big deal for the school, President Barry Lieske said, because it draws attention to the arts, which he said often are overshadowed by other activities like sports. That’s why he wasn’t about to cancel school the day of the assembly when falling snow that morning made road travel difficult.

“(What) is really central to what we do as a Catholic high school is to connect students to who they are,” Lieske said, explaining the meaning behind the mural, which depicts adjoining images of Brother Michael and St. John Baptist de La Salle, founder of the religious order that founded the school. “That relational piece is so central to the Gospel message. … (The mural) grounds our students in their history — who are we as a school, who are we as a people, who are we as a faith community.”

The roots of the mural stretch back to the 1960s, when Duffy took the bus daily from his home in south Minneapolis to the school, located on Nicollet Island. He transferred buses in downtown Minneapolis to finish the ride.


Senior Kate Graham of DeLaSalle High School quickly said yes when she was invited to take part in Joe Duffy’s mural painting project in the school lobby.

“I just love to paint,” she said. “I just love art.”

But, when she got her assignment from Duffy, things took a turn. He wanted her to paint the eagle, which would mean working about 20 feet in the air.

“I don’t like heights,” she said. “I cried the first time I went up the scaffolding. I was so scared.”

She summoned the courage to go up, but she was so fearful about coming back down that she ended up staying on the scaffolding all day before climbing back down on her own when the school day was over. She had to later explain that to teachers of her classes, but it wasn’t a serious problem, one administrator said; she is an honor student.

DeLaSalle senior Kate Graham painted the eagle, located at the top left of the mural. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Eventually, Graham got used to being on the scaffolding — where she was always under adult supervision — and she ended up painting the entire eagle herself. That impressed Duffy.

He noted that Graham wasn’t the only student who was scared to go on the scaffolding. “Everybody was,” he said. The key was to climb it himself in front of the students so they could learn how to use their hands as well as their feet.

“I climbed up it and said … don’t look down and you’ll be just fine,” he said.

Graham took his advice and worked through her fear, even though she did wonder if she was up high enough to die if she fell. After contemplating that question, she reached a simple conclusion: “A few seconds of thinking I might die is worth it,” she said. “I figured this would be something I wouldn’t forget.”

“To come to downtown Minneapolis and into the heart of the city was a really, really great experience for me,” said Duffy, 70, who now lives just a few blocks from the school and belongs to Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. “I loved being in the city, I loved taking the bus.”

Though most of his friends attended Washburn High School near where he lived, his parents insisted he attend a Catholic high school, and chose DeLaSalle. In the end, he said, “I was glad that they did.”

It was there that he met Brother Michael Collins, who grew up in north Minneapolis and graduated from DeLaSalle in 1955. After joining the Christian Brothers, he taught English, religion and music at the school from 1959 to 1967, the year Duffy graduated. After taking positions in teaching and administration elsewhere, including Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Brother Michael returned as president of DeLaSalle in 1991. The school was struggling at that time, both with finances and low enrollment. He held that post until 2012, when he was battling lung cancer and died Jan. 8 of that year.

Under his leadership, the school rebounded from enrollment and financial struggles, and also built a new addition and a new athletic field. He is beloved at the school, and also widely known for his musical talents. He was an accomplished singer who performed as a tenor at the school and beyond.

Duffy was inspired by Brother Michael, who sang for a few summers in the late ‘60s at a bar owned by Duffy’s father called Duff’s in downtown Minneapolis. In high school, Duffy played bass guitar for Brother Michael in a group called De Men. They performed locally during Duffy’s sophomore, junior and senior year, but also went to the World’s Fair in Montreal in 1967. The two remained friends after high school, with Brother Michael becoming “like part of the family,” Duffy said, noting that Brother Michael is godfather to his son, Joseph Duffy.

Brother Michael’s influence would prove crucial to Duffy’s choice to pursue an art career. While a teenager, nearly everyone tried to steer Duffy away from the arts as a profession.

“My counselor here at DeLaSalle and a number of my teachers at DeLaSalle said, ‘Don’t go into art. You’re going to be a starving artist. You’re not going to make any money,’” Duffy said. “My parents said, ‘Come on, you should go to law school or medical school.’”

But, Duffy recalled Brother Michael saying, “Go with your heart. Go with what you want to do.”

That underscored Duffy’s own sentiments. “I have to do art,” he said. “It’s such an important part of me.”

It still is, which is why he wanted to do the mural with DeLaSalle students. He and senior Liam Brubaker designed the mural, while other students painted it. Duffy only occasionally picked up a brush for some minor touch-ups. Mostly, he passed along some valuable life lessons he learned throughout his 35 years at Duffy & Partners.

During those years, he became accomplished in both design and branding, receiving in 2004 the Legacy Medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts for a lifetime of achievement in visual communications, and also receiving the American Institute of Graphic Arts Fellow Award in 2007 for leadership in the state’s design and business community. In 2005, he published a book called “Brand Apart.”

“I tell all the students that I work with now, you want to wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work. You want to love what you do, day in and day out,” he said. “I’ve known so many people throughout my life who can’t stand going to work. And some of them are millionaires and some of them are blue-collar workers … but they can’t stand going to work.”

He said enjoying what he does “has made a huge difference in my life.”

Brubaker said he hopes to follow Duffy’s example and pursue a similar career. In the fall, he plans to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

“I’ve wanted to do graphic design or art since middle school,” Brubaker said. “This has been something that I’ve been doing on my own for a while. So, being able to have a mentor like Joe Duffy … was really nice.”

Brubaker and the other students who worked on the mural were honored at the Feb. 12 school assembly. Lieske wanted everyone to acknowledge Duffy, the students who worked on the mural and the arts. Hopefully, Lieske said, they will be inspired enough to say to themselves, “I’m going to do something like Joe did.”

Lieske also hopes that putting attention on the arts can help temper the emphasis on athletics.

“As a society, we do a really remarkable job of holding up athletic prowess and success,” Lieske said, alluding to DeLaSalle’s reputation for strong athletics. “But, rarely do we take time to acknowledge the really broader co-curricular activities of theater, music, the arts. And when we looked at our hall-of-fame structure, one of the things we said is we’re putting all these athletes into our hall of fame -— as well we should. But, we’re really not acknowledging that (artistic) dimension of our graduates.”

The school plans to give the Brother Michael Collins Award every year. For Duffy, being the first winner “is a wonderful honor.”

“I was just blown away” after being notified, he said. “I was just dumbfounded. I was like, ‘Wow.’”


Joe Duffy delivers remarks Feb. 12 at an all-school assembly at DeLaSalle High School. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

When artist Joe Duffy began meeting with DeLaSalle art teacher Megan Longman to map out the mural project, she picked art students from various grades to do the painting.

“I was excited because I know that … my students are so crazy talented,” she said. “I knew that it would be no problem for them to help with this mural. … It was awesome for these kids to do it and that they were acknowledged for the many talents that the fine arts department has.”

The first step was designing the mural. Duffy worked closely with senior Liam Brubaker to design the mural, identifying important visual elements that show the history of the school and the city of Minneapolis.

The centerpiece they came up with was adjoining images of Brother Michael Collins, a teacher at DeLaSalle from 1959 to 1967 and school president from 1991 to 2012, on the right, and St. John Baptist de La Salle, founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, aka the Christian Brothers, on the left. Brother Michael was a Christian Brother, and it was the brothers who started the school in 1900.

Other images include a woman to the right of Brother Michael to represent the school becoming co-educational in 1971; the athletic field built in 2009; Our Lady of Lourdes church located just blocks from the school in northeast Minneapolis; the iconic Grain Belt beer sign, which stands next door to the school; plus a largemouth bass, Native American chief and an eagle, all of which represent the general history of the Minneapolis region.

“I love it; I think it’s absolutely amazing,” Longman said of the finished mural. “I think it definitely depicts a part of who we are at DeLaSalle as a community.”

Once the images were chosen, Duffy and Brubaker created a montage on a computer that was then projected on the wall for the students to paint. They worked during art classes, lunch periods and after school. The students met their goal of finishing in December, and they relished the chance to work with Duffy, who wanted to mimic the collaboration he employs at Duffy & Partners.

“It meant a lot,” Brubaker said. “I learned a lot about being able to deal with other artists and the communication aspect. And, I feel a lot more comfortable now being able to preach my ideas and put myself out there a lot more.”

Placing the mural in the school lobby will give students the chance to be reminded of history every day. The same goes for all visitors.

There’s something on this mural here that connects with everybody who passes by it,” said communications director Matt Lehman, himself a graduate of the school. “It is something visible and permanent and tangible.”

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