A North Dakota athlete had a hole-in-one in golf twice, bowled a perfect 300 game and was such a good baseball player that he was offered a professional baseball contract from the St. Louis Cardinals. However, he is not best remembered for his accomplishments in sports, but rather for what he achieved in politics.
Tom Kleppe served as mayor of Bismarck, was elected to Congress on three occasions, managed the U.S. Small Business Administration and served as U.S. Secretary of Interior. Kleppe was also president of Gold Seal, a company founded by Harold Schafer.
Thomas Savig Kleppe was born July 1, 1919, in Kintyre, located in south-central North Dakota, to Lars and Hannah (Savig) Kleppe. Lars, who was born in Norway, “managed the Farmers’ Company Elevator, traded horses, and had an implement business on the side.” Tom attended elementary school in Kintyre, but because the town did not have a high school, he attended high school in Valley City, 120 miles away. During the summers, “Tom worked for his father.”
He graduated in 1936 and then attended Valley City Teachers College (VCTC), now Valley City State University. According to the college yearbook, the only sport that Tom Kleppe participated in at college was boxing.
Kleppe left VCTC after one year to take a job as bookkeeper for the Stock Growers Bank in Napoleon, and because management saw his potential, he was sent to the Dakota National Bank in Bismarck to learn the banking business as an assistant cashier. Kleppe then returned to the Napoleon bank “as managing officer at the age of 21.”
After the U.S. entered World War II, Kleppe enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving as a warrant officer in the finance division. While he was stationed at Buckley Field, near Denver, Colo., he joined the military post baseball team, the Buckley Field Falcons. There were a couple of former major league ball players on the team, and many of his other teammates had played minor league baseball.
Despite the fact that Kleppe had no professional baseball experience, he was named the starting shortstop by his manager, Burgess Whitehead, who had been an all-star second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants. When Kleppe was about to be discharged in 1945, he was approached by scouts from the Cardinals urging him to sign a baseball contract with them, which he turned down.
Kleppe later told newspaper reporters, “I only weighed 145 pounds, wringing wet, and I figured that wasn’t enough to make the major leagues, and I wouldn’t settle for anything less.”
After Kleppe’s discharge, he returned to North Dakota and learned that his parents' friend, Harold Schafer, was willing to give him a job. In 1942, Schafer, a salesman in Bismarck, had begun repackaging a 3M, commercial-grade floor wax that he sold under the name of Gold Seal, and he was having success in marketing it. According to Schafer, Lars Kleppe had a good friend who had helped Schafer in the early stages of his business. Schafer then made a promise to Lars, “When and if I have money, I am going to have Tom (Kleppe) count it for me.”
True to his word, Schafer hired Kleppe to be the bookkeeper for his Gold Seal Co., and a short time later, Schafer promoted Kleppe to treasurer. Then in 1947, Schafer named Kleppe as vice president of his company.
While working at Gold Seal in Bismarck, Kleppe also immersed himself in civic and business matters and, in 1950, decided to run for mayor. He was elected and, at the age of 30, became “the youngest mayor of a capital city (in the U.S.), at the time.”
In 1954, after serving out his term as mayor, Kleppe returned full time to Gold Seal. He told a newspaper reporter that his main accomplishments while mayor were: “ending Bismarck’s perennial flood problems; adding a four-lane highway into the city; increasing salaries of city employees (by) 30 percent; installing hundreds of street lights; installing sanitary sewers in the south part of town; and, keeping the municipal debt down to almost nothing.”
By this time, Schafer had added a furniture polish, bleach and “glass wax,” and sales were beginning to skyrocket. With the money that the Gold Seal Co. was making, Schafer began to pursue another interest, which was restoring the town of Medora to the way it looked back in the 1880s. In 1958, Schafer was elected president of the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park and Badlands Association. "The primary purpose of the association was to produce the outdoor theater production, "Old Four Eyes,'" a musical based on the life of Roosevelt while he was in the Badlands.
The theater for the show was carved out of the hillside of Burning Gulch and given the name Burning Hills Amphitheatre. Since this project was taking a lot of Schafer's time and attention, he resigned as president of Gold Seal and appointed Kleppe as his replacement.
Kleppe remained president of Gold Seal until 1964, when he decided to run as a Republican against Quentin Burdick, the incumbent U.S. Senator. North Dakota was heavily Republican and Burdick was considered a liberal Democrat. At the time of the June 30 primary, things looked good for Kleppe when he received 67,920 of the votes compared to the 45,099 votes cast for Burdick.
However, North Dakota swung heavily for the Democrats on Election Day, with Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic candidate for U.S. President, receiving 58% of the votes, and the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, receiving 42%. Kleppe also received only 42% of the votes, and Burdick was reelected. That year, 1964, was the last time in North Dakota that a Democratic presidential candidate received more votes than the Republican candidate.
Kleppe had his first taste of statewide elective politics, and like many people who were successful competitive sports participants, a single defeat did not make them want to give up. It very often strengthened their resolve and they usually wanted to get back into competitions just as soon as possible. Unfortunately, in politics it usually takes a couple of years before they can do that.
After his defeat, Kleppe took a position as vice president of the J.M. Daln Co., an investment firm in Minneapolis. We will continue our story about Tom Kleppe next week.
Note: There is an addition to last week’s article, in which I mentioned four people from small towns in North Dakota who were top executives of airline companies. Dave Flach contacted me and wrote that I also need to include Larry Martin from Hastings, who was president of Frontier Airlines.
Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.