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It’s hard being away when friends are laid to rest

Robert Kleinow
Robert Kleinow

Starting July 5, Deb and I had a wonderful visit to a part of the country we had never seen before as we had bases in Portland and Seattle, and then explored in different directions from there in both Oregon and Washington. It truly is an underrated place of natural beauty with interesting cities in a relatively temperate climate.

Temperatures ranged from low 60s to high 70s during our trip, so this week as we returned to Iowa it’s been a bit of a shock to the system!

But, there was a tinge of sadness during our trip, as well. I missed funeral services for two friends — former Creston superintendent Steve McDermott, who I first met when he was working for Bridgewater-Fontanelle schools way back when we were both young; and longtime friend Robert Kleinow, who was a teacher and coach in Creston in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I’ve written a lot about Steve in recent weeks already, but have not touched on how much I valued the friendship I had with Kleinow for the many years after he left Creston and became a valued resource of knowledge and assistance to teachers as an employee of Heartland Area Education Agency based in Johnston.

A lot of former Creston students and athletes now in their 40s will remember a young Robert Kleinow working in the school district.

Kleinow was in with us in the early years when football coach Dick Bergstrom had heard about a new trend of adults playing “fantasy sports” in the country. We held the first Creston Rotisserie Baseball League draft in Bergstrom’s banquet in 1988. The league is still going.

In the beginning it was pre-internet, and guys like Bergstrom, Mark Camenisch and Kleinow would compile stats of the major league players we drafted from the statistical summary page each week in the USA Today newspaper. Kleinow’s role in the league grew over time, and for many years he’s been the commissioner.

For those 30 years, Kleinow usually sat behind me on draft day and for several hours his dry wit would surface with a comment that made me crack up. He was humble and self-deprecating, despite the fact that he was the most passionate one in the room about constantly trying to add the newest budding star to his team’s roster.

He always spent the most money in transactions, but usually came out ahead financially because his constant maneuvering would enhance the standing of his team over the six months of the season.

One of the students and football players coached by Kleinow, Cory Latham, recalled this week that it was often Kleinow who would let them into the weight room to lift on early morning sessions back in the early 1990s. But, instead of joining in to lift, he’d be off in the corner poring over box scores in that morning’s newspaper.

That was Robert.

In baseball he was passionate about the Baltimore Orioles, and his fantasy team’s name was the Klein-O’s. His other favorite teams happened to also be mine, the Green Bay Packers and the Iowa Hawkeyes — we were both Iowa grads — so we had a lot of things to discuss on those draft days each spring.

I would often see him at Iowa basketball or football games, as well. Just last winter, fantasy league member and former Orient-Macksburg and Creston coach Tim Mohs saw him at an Iowa basketball game.

After a few minutes, Kleinow’s wife Sharon said to Robert, “Are you going to tell him, or should I?”

“Oh, yeah. I have Stage 4 liver cancer,” Kleinow said, like he was casually mentioning a new job promotion.

Stunned, Mohs asked how he was doing.

“Oh, fine. Every day is a good day,” he answered in his own humble manner.

“Tim, it’s serious,” Sharon confided to Mohs.

Nobody else knew at the draft day in April until nearly everyone had left. Deric Oshel and I were standing around helping pick up things at the home of Ed Hansen when Kleinow asked Oshel if he could take over as commissioner if needed during the season. Oshel said sure, but asked why that would be necessary.

That’s when Robert mentioned he had cancer and it was unlikely he would be alive at the end of the season. We were devastated. Deric put a league field trip together in late June to see an Iowa Cubs game, but in reality it was another chance for us to see Robert, because we knew those opportunities were limited.

In fact, two weeks later he passed away at home under hospice care. I was already on our vacation 1,700 miles away and couldn’t make the funeral visitation or services, but several league members did. Coach Bergstrom was a pall bearer, in fact.

Besides being an excellent science teacher and coach for softball, track and football in Creston, Robert was just a good friend who would always brighten the moment with his offbeat humor.

“Robert always had a comeback that was never malicious, but always pointed and funny,” said Mohs, who coached Creston/O-M freshman football with Kleinow after his Bulldog program merged with Bergstrom’s Panthers.

Oshel was a varsity player for the Panthers when Kleinow joined the staff, and he remembers him on the sidelines helping out on Friday nights. Robert was not a screamer or known to berate players, instead focusing on helping them become the best they could be.

“I got to know Robert more in later years in our (baseball) league, but what I discovered is that he’s a quiet guy, yet when he talks, it’s powerful,” Oshel said. “A big part of our league is missing now. He was always the guy you were competing against.”

Bergstrom said Kleinow was the perfect assistant coach.

“He was conscientious, willing to do anything he was asked to do, and worked hard on his responsibilities,” Bergstrom said. “He had a great sense of humor and got along great with the kids. He had great rapport with them.”

He was the same in his career. Kleinow had a master’s degree in instructional technology from the University of Northern Iowa, and used it in helping teachers in the classroom throughout central Iowa.

This is what a beginning teacher wrote as a tribute on the Elliott Funeral Chapel of New London website: “This past school year was my first as a teacher. Rob came into my school multiple times to help me with my curriculum and with supplies. He was supportive, patient and knowledgeable. I owe the success of my first year to him. I’m sad to hear of his passing, and my condolences go out to his friends and family.”

The fun banter with Kleinow was one of the highlights of each draft day. He will be missed. He died at age 55. He and wife Sharon deserved much more time together.

“If I could characterize Robert it would be that he’s just a good guy,” Bergstrom said. “He did anything he could to help other people. It doesn’t seem fair.”


Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson


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