A chat with... Jack Klinge
Published 1:25 pm, Saturday, August 13, 2016
WESTPORT — One of the first volunteer projects that 50-year Westport resident Jack Klinge took on in the town began in a small catering restaurant on Thanksgiving of 1985. In the restaurant to pick up a dish for the holiday dinner that morning, Klinge saw the owner frantically cooking. He told Klinge he needed to make and deliver 25 meals to homebound people around Westport.
Klinge and his wife Jeanne stepped in that day and helped make the deliveries, launching a tradition they never stopped. Just over three decades later, the husband and wife still deliver meals to homebound residents every Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday with the help of their friends and family.
Klinge also coached Little League teams for 13 years, starting in 1972. Those commitments — along with his commute to New York City — occupied his time until he retired 20 years ago. He was 57 when he decided to stop working and dove into numerous roles around Westport.
“I am now way involved in the town — More than I ever would have guessed 20 years ago,” Klinge said. “When you’re a commuter, you don’t even really know what’s going on.”
At a friend’s suggestion, Klinge ran for a Representative Town Meeting seat just after retiring and won. He has now served 10 terms and is the longest-serving member of the RTM, currently placed on the parks and recreation, public works, education, health and human services and long-range planning committees.
Around the same time, he began mentoring children in single-parent families through the town, which led to a mentorship of an eight-year-old boy. Klinge also mentored the boy’s twin sister, older sister and mother, forming a relationship that continues two decades later. When the three children were looking at colleges, Klinge brought them on trips and the family still comes to Klinge’s house for holidays, he said.
Mentoring is not the only way the Westport resident has stayed in touch with younger generations. For 18 years, Klinge has worked as a substitute teacher in middle and high schools.
“If you want to stay young, get involved teaching teenagers,” he said.
It is not just teenagers that Klinge interacts with on a regular basis. When the Westport Center for Senior Activities started about a decade ago, Klinge was a major advocate. He became chairman of the board — a position he recently gave up though he remains a board member — and founded Friends of the Westport Center for Senior Activities.
Klinge said he founded the Friends non-profit originally to raise money for elements the town was cutting when developing the center, such as a fireplace, which the Friends funded.
The Friends also fund entertainment programs, including the Levitt Indoor Music Series, funded by a yearly $15,000 grant from the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation. The program funds five free Sunday concerts each winter at the senior center, each with a free lunch for seniors in the audience. The Friends also bring lectures and movies to the center and have bought furniture and hardware for the facility.
The most pressing projects for the senior center are ensuring the expansion is done property and is timely, improving the flexibility of the space and increasing awareness in town, Klinge said.
The RTM approved funding for schematics and designs for the senior center’s planned expansion last month. The multimillion-dollar expansion is expected to add 3,500 to 5,000 square feet to the currently 13,000-square-foot center.
The expansion, Klinge said, is needed because seniors are using the facility and it does not currently have the space to schedule all the programs and activities seniors would use.
“It’s like the ‘Field of Dreams,’” he said. “If you build it, will they come? Well in this case they did.”
Klinge has numerous commitments around town, he said, because once he gets involved in something he likes, he commits long-term.
“I’ve really enjoyed being involved in Westport,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about the town, the people, how things operate. And I think I’ve made a bit of a contribution. So I’m glad I’ve done it — and it keeps me from watching Oprah during the day.”
Plus, Klinge said, he still has time to read two books a week, golf and travel.
Raised in Tenafly, N.J., Klinge studied chemical engineering at Cornell University, where he joined the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). As his two-year stint in the Navy wound down, Klinge decided to apply to graduate school.
He considered buisness programs in San Francisco but chose to just apply to Harvard Business School. He got in and married his wife Jeanne during his second year.
With their first child in tow, Klinge landed his first job working for General Foods in White Plains, N.Y. Looking at different towns in the area, the couple visited Westport, where Jeanne knew a couple of friends from her hometown were living.
“Well, it was love at first site,” Klinge said. “Beaches, small town, great schools - the whole cliché.”
The couple rented an apartment in Norwalk for a year and then bought their first Westport home in 1966. Two of their three children would go on to attend Staples High School, with the third splitting his high school education between Staples and The Taft School, after Staples’ hockey program wound down.
In the mid-1980s, Klinge, between jobs, got an offer in Springfield, Mass. Moving out of Westport was not an option, but Klinge did consider whether he would take the job and commute an hour and a half for work.
It was the middle of December and he went with Jeanne to the Staples holiday concert.
“I walked out of there and I said, ‘Jeannie, we’re not going to Springfield,’” he recalled.
Klinge found a job where he would not have to commute so far from town. Decades later, he said all of his best friends are Westporters, who he and Jeanne have been privileged to “meet and travel with and party with.”
“We’re now part of so many things that we call traditions. That’s what it is after 50 years,” he said. “And I’m not leaving. I’m not going to Florida. I’m not going to Arizona. We’re staying here.”