Hot Rod was one of a kind

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
My friend Rod Skube never minced words.
“Hot Rod,” as he was known for years by many, was both quick-witted and acerbic, and never one to waste time in our conversations.
Often our phone dialogue would end abruptly, when another person on his nightly call list would dial in or he would simply decide it was time to contact the next friend or family member on his list.
“I gotta go,” he would often say. If he was less in a hurry than usual, he might add “tell Hollee I love her.”
The evening phone calls, which usually came twice or three times a week and started long before Hot Rod moved to Cloquet, were the evolution of a friendship that dated back more than 45 years.
The best guess on my first encounter with Hot Rod is that it came sometime in late-1973 or early-1974. I was an occasional, three-year-old “guest” at the kindergarten class taught by my grandmother, the late Florence Coombe, and Hot Rod was one of her students.
By 1976, I began my tenure with Ely baseball as the six-year-old batboy of the VFW team and Hot Rod often partnered along, as his older brother Randy was the starting first baseman.
Hot Rod and I would later become teammates on the Motel Ely Tigers and our childhood medical conditions, me with allergies and Hot Rod with asthma, made for after-school trips to the Ely clinic back when it was across from City Hall.
Hot Rod was two years older than me, but I often tagged along with his group of friends including John Mavetz, Marley Kendall and Hot Rod’s cousin - Greg Tulla.
That trio certainly had more athletic prowess but Hot Rod was no slouch, competing in both baseball and hock-ey.
Years afterward, Hot Rod would remind people he led Ely’s Little League in batting average in his final season, and he developed into a decent first baseman when he reached his high school years.
Two of his finest moments came in Legion ball, and both at Duluth’s cavernous Ordean Stadium. In his junior year, he battled his way through an 11-pitch at-bat against Cloquet and soon-to-be UMD star Dennis Karp, working a bases-loaded walk to give Ely a walkoff win in the Lakeview tourney.
A year later, Hot Rod somehow managed to keep his foot on the bag at first to finish a double play as Ely upset Marble, which as Greenway won the state high school title that year, in the district Legion playoffs.
Hot Rod also played hockey for the Timberwolves but stopped playing football before he reached the varsity level. Even so, he claimed to have scored the first touchdown - as a C-squad player from Ely -on Virginia’s new football field. That’s one piece of history I could never confirm, or refute.
Hot Rod’s love of sports never seemed to wane. Years later, he would become a high school baseball and soft-ball umpire, being selected to work many tournament games and developing a keen eye for the strike zone. Had he wished, he clearly could have worked more than he did and gained the opportunity to officiate at the state tournament level. He was a much better umpire than he ever realized.
In the middle of a better than two-decade run as an umpire, Hot Rod took a brief hiatus to serve as an assistant high school baseball coach in Ely. After his final game, a close playoff loss in Hinckley, he enjoyed some time with a few of the Wolves’ seniors who had turned 18, closing the campaign out with a round of Grand Casino blackjack that was more successful than the game that ended a few hours before.
Hot Rod’s life work was helping people. Starting a few years after graduating high school, Hot Rod was hired as an aide at Ely’s nursing home and stayed there for more than 25 years.
He cared for countless Ely seniors, telling jokes, sometimes talking in Slovenian, and treating our most vulnera-ble with dignity and respect.
Before my own grandfather passed away 15 years ago, and before his brief stay at the Boundary Waters Care Center, Hot Rod would come to his home - off the clock - and help him bathe and complete other tasks. He treated him as if we was family.
Family obviously meant a lot to Hot Rod. The son of the late Albert and Marge Skube, Hot Rod was the fifth of seven children, following Roxanne, Renata, Rick and Randy with twins Renee and Rhonda the youngest of the clan.
Those regular phone calls with Hot Rod almost always included news and tidbits about his siblings and in time, their kids.
While Hot Rod was never a father, he may very well have been the proudest uncle I’ve ever known.
Self-described as “Uncle Buck,” Hot Rod took young nieces and nephews to the park or DQ, and later bragged about all of their accomplishments - be they sporting or in the classroom.
Family meant everything to Hot Rod and he treated his friends like family. I’ve got enough stories and memo-ries to fill this week’s paper, from the times he visited the Duluth apartment and later house shared with college roommate and now state college vice chancellor Bill Maki, to road trips to Twins and VIkings games and a handful of excursions to Las Vegas. The stories fill my head and bring back memories, and make me laugh, brightening the mood even in these dark times.
After Macy was born in 2014, Hot Rod was one of the first to visit, ambling over from the nursing home to Hollee’s room at Ely-Bloomenson. He offered congratulations and his sharp tongue, joking that my daughter had his eyes.
In more recent years, every once in a while I would pull in on a Saturday afternoon to Zaverl’s, just to check up on Hot Rod and get my dose of humor and sarcasm, news and opinion, gossip and wit. He would rarely disap-point.
Not all that long ago, Hot Rod moved to Cloquet, providing valuable and needed assistance to sister Roxanne and her husband Dennis Korman.
He didn’t visit Ely much but my phone kept ringing, usually after an Ely sporting event, and Hot Rod always offered words of wisdom, and greetings to Hollee and our kids.
My phone says Hot Rod’s last call came in late-April. The calendar had turned to May and it was indeed odd that I hadn’t heard from him.
I would soon find out why. Some health complications put Hot Rod in the hospital, and his condition deteriorat-ed rapidly. The reports were both cryptic and telling. Soon came another message: Hot Rod was gone at age 52. Much too early, much too young.
In a way, he left like one of his late-night calls. All of a sudden he was gone, with no chance to say goodbye.
This will have to do Hot Rod. You were one of a kind. We will miss you and always remember you, and like you would want - with a smile.