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Twin Ports loses longtime captain of industry

Colleagues reflect on the life and work of Adolph Ojard Jr., a Knife River native who dedicated much of his life to Lake Superior and Great Lakes industry.

DULUTH — Adolph Ojard Jr.’s introduction to Lake Superior began like so many others growing up in Knife River, Minnesota — on a commercial fishing boat.

“I loved going out,” Ojard once told WTIP North Shore Community Radio. “I could rarely sleep the night before I went out.”

Those were early mornings and long days, in which he acquired a strong work ethic he’d carry throughout his career.

Ojard learned to pick herring from nets, plunging his frozen hands into a warm pot of water in order to get them moving again.

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Adolph Ojard Jr.

The grandson of Norwegian immigrants and son of a fisherman and tug boat operator, Ojard went on to a lead a robust life on the Great Lakes, spending 31 years as a captain of industry. He started on the docks before later becoming in charge of the Great Lakes Fleet of ships, the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway, and, to end his career, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Ojard, 72, died Dec. 30 from complications with autoimmune and neurological conditions at a hospital in Georgia, where he’d settled an hour outside Atlanta following his retirement from the Port Authority in 2013 .

“He was an amazing boss, great mentor and a wonderful friend,” said Adele Yorde, a retired spokesperson for the Port Authority.

According to his obituary, Ojard's career included transfers to Erie and Pittsburgh, back to Duluth, to Mobile, Alabama, and finally back to Duluth again.

Yorde described Ojard as a tuneful whistler and singer who would fill the office with positive energy.

“He set out goals and objectives and turned us loose to do our jobs,” Yorde said.

Executive Director Deb DeLuca recalled Ojard similarly, as a vibrant personality and strong advocate for the port and Great Lakes shipping.

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“Maritime and railroad business threaded through his entire life, beginning with his boyhood days aboard the Edna G tugboat,” DeLuca said. “He became a true giant of the port world and an absolute original. We’re grateful for his thoughtful leadership of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and his contributions to our region. We’ll miss him greatly.”

Adolph Ojard Sr. in the pilot house of the Edna G. Ojard Sr. was the tug's last captain before her retirement. Adolph Ojard Jr. began his career on Lake Superior in his father's fishing boats. Contributed / Lake County Historical Society free

Jim Sharrow, retired director of port planning and resiliency for the Port Authority, worked many years under Ojard, starting out with then-U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet of ships. He recalled Ojard as hard-driving and results-focused. At the Port Authority, Ojard started staff meetings Mondays at 8 a.m. sharp.

“If you walked into the meeting late, he’d say, ‘Dollars waiting on a nickel,’ so you knew where your position was in the lineup,” Sharrow said. “You didn’t want to be a nickel very often.”

As executive director of the local port, Ojard rose to become president of the American Great Lakes Ports Association.

“Once he got involved, he was probably going to be the leader,” Sharrow said.

Ojard tackled challenges such as corrosion in the Duluth-Superior port and invasive species brought to the Great Lakes aboard foreign ships.

Yet, even as he led, Ojard was never one to go it alone.

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“Adolph built coalitions of all sorts,” Sharrow said.

He recalled Ojard as being integral in working toward effective ballast water treatments, collaborating with the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington, D.C. to protect the Great Lakes from foreign species, and also keep invaders localized when they did reach the Great Lakes.

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A North Star Port magazine cover featuring Adolph Ojard, Jr. in 2003. Contributed / Duluth Seaway Port Authority

Sharrow also remembered how Ojard convened Minnesota Sea Grant and a host of corrosion experts to tackle the freshwater corrosion issue that imperiled 14 miles of steel sheet piling and structures in the Duluth-Superior harbor earlier this century.

“He and I recognized that as a real threat to our facilities, and all of the steel bulkheads in the harbor,” Sharrow said.

Ojard’s own words in his reflective interview with WTIP showcased the wonder he held for the Great Lakes.

“It was magical to be out there,” Ojard told the program “Moments in Time.” “There is nothing as mystical as Lake Superior during the seasons — summers are beautiful with the sunrise and winters quite the opposite with the smoke fog and rolling seas.”

A University of Minnesota Duluth graduate who majored in literature and was an avid reader, Ojard seemed to have a poet’s understanding of his youth.

In the interview, he talked about growing up in awe of the stoic Norwegians in and around his family. The older he got, the closer he grew to understand their gruff exteriors hid “hearts like marshmallows,” Ojard said.

“It’s a strong work ethic,” he said. “That’s where it really starts. When you’re a young child you (learn to) understand what it really takes to make a living.”

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Adolph Ojard Jr. speaks at a lecture as executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. Ojard served in the role from 2003-13. Contributed / Duluth Seaway Port Authority

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