He always told his children to never quit, this guy who bounded up steps two at a time, rode horses until age 83 - a down-to-earth North Dakota boy who hated fancy restaurants, hated shopping, wore polyester pants and didn't change his ways when he was elected to Congress, or later when he was President Richard M. Nixon's administrator of the Small Business Administration and President Gerald Ford's secretary of the interior.
But quitting time came, on Friday.
At 5:30 p.m. Friday, Tom Kleppe, 87, after a years-long battle with Alzheimer's disease died at his home in Bethesda, Md., with his wife at his side.
Former President George Bush, who became close to Kleppe after both entered Congress together as freshmen Congressmen, will be an honorary pallbearer.
"Tom Kleppe and I were elected to Congress on the same day in 1966 and instantly became the best of friends. He went on to serve with great distinction as the secretary of the interior," the former president said Monday from his Houston office. "Tom Kleppe represented the best in public service. He loved North Dakota and he loved his country.
"To sum it all up, Tom Kleppe was a good man and I loved him," Bush said.
Friends and family told the Tribune Monday they couldn't think of anything Kleppe wasn't good at - that he excelled at everything.
He started out as a farm boy on his family's farm near Kintyre, helping his father manage a grain elevator, and then he attended Valley City Teachers College. He was an outstanding athlete, a golfer who would shoot two holes-in-one, a bowler who played a perfect 300 game and a shortstop who was offered a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals shortly before being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army. He turned it down and returned to North Dakota.
"I only weighed 145 pounds wringing wet," he said in a past Tribune article. "I figured that wasn't enough to make the major leagues - and I wouldn't settle for anything less."
He was known to be great with numbers, skills that took him far, first in Bismarck as a bookkeeper and banker, then with Gold Seal Co. - eventually becoming the company's president.
At age 30, he won the job of mayor for Bismarck, serving from 1950 to 55 - the youngest mayor of a capital city, at the time.
In a 1955 Bismarck Tribune article he listed several main accomplishments while mayor: ending Bismarck's perennial flood problem; adding a four-lane highway into the city; increasing salaries of city employees 30 percent; installing hundreds of street lights, taking the city out of darkness; installing sanitary sewers in south part of town; and keeping municipal debt down to almost nothing.
Bringing major growth to Bismarck wasn't a top priority, apparently. Peter Welk, who worked with him at Gold Seal, remembers after serving as mayor, Kleppe was in the old Finney Drug Store one day when a Chamber of Commerce person was going on and on about his optimism that Bismarck would become a great city with much growth.
Welk remembers Kleppe responding that he liked Bismarck as is, a city where in five minutes you could be out of it and shooting pheasants. "We don't need all that growth," he remembers Kleppe saying.
He resigned from the Gold Seal Co. in 1964 to run for the U.S. Senate, which was unsuccessful, but two years later he was heading to Washington.
Reining in spending and inflation were main issues in his successful bid for the U.S. Congress in 1966.
His campaign manager, Jim Schlosser, 69, said Kleppe wanted to go to Washington to help straighten out inflation and spending concerns happening during President Lyndon Johnson's presidency.
Schlosser, an attorney and active in the Republican Party, said he would never have been a campaign manager for someone he didn't believe in and he strongly believed in Kleppe.
Schlosser said Kleppe was "really a straight shooter."
"And as far as government spending, there was no one better in the state as far as finances and spending … to look out for the interests of (North Dakota)," Schlosser said.
Kleppe served two terms. Then, at the urging of President Richard Nixon, he ran for the Senate against the very popular Democratic incumbent, Sen. Quentin Burdick, and lost. But he was then appointed by Nixon as administrator of the Small Business Administration. In that position he won accolades from both sides of the aisle, according to news reports, for using his business experience to create an extensive streamlining of the department during his tenure, 1971-75.
Among other things, where sometimes in the past it had taken six months and 42 loan applications for a small business to get a loan, under Kleppe the process was down to two forms. According to a Bismarck Tribune editorial, a Democratic staff member of a congressional committee called Kleppe, "Maybe the best administrator in the past five years."
In 1975, President Gerald Ford asked Kleppe, viewed as a middle-of-the-roader on environmental issues, to serve in his cabinet as secretary of the interior.
"I am every proud to be the first North Dakotan to be nominated to a Cabinet post," Kleppe said in a 1975 news article.
Ford was quoted as saying Kleppe's job would be to protect the environment while at the same time finding ways to extract vitally needed energy sources for the nation. Issues included concerns about DOI's plans to open new offshore areas for petroleum exploration and development. Another major issue was whether to increase leasing and development of federal coal lands.
"When I visited him (after he got the Cabinet post), he had really good ideas, was looking at it as a challenge … being in charge of all the federal government's acreage," Schlosser said. "The unfortunate thing was he only served a year." He left the job after Ford lost the election.
After his government posts, he taught a course on environmental politics at the University of Wyoming and was a consultant with the Alexander Proudfoot Co. based in Chicago. He retired in 1981, but went on to serve on the board of directors for Government Investors Trust, Presidential Savings Bank and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Kleppe's youngest daughter, Jill Kleppe McClelland, 43, an attorney and mother of three in Maryland, said her father was "the world's greatest guy."
He was busy, but wasn't too busy to get down on the floor with her when she was a child and play board games. On the funny side, she remembers he had a habit of sticking his tongue out when really concentrating. And he often had a mound of sunflower seeds in his cheek.
She said he read the Bible every night.
Even in the last stages of the disease, when Kleppe heard someone reading a biblical verse, he was still able to say "Amen" at the end of it, Schlosser said.
Kleppe was married to the late Frieda Krein, of Wishek, from 1941 to 1957. After her death from cancer, he met Glendora ("Glen") Loew Gompf, of Holland, Mich., and married her in 1958.
Survivors include his wife, Glen; four children: Janis Cunningham, of Walland, Tenn.; Thomas Kleppe, of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; Jane Sutermeister, of Bluemont, Va.; and Jill McClelland, of Bethesda, Md; 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md.
Kleppe will receive full presidential level honors at a 1 p.m. March 29 interment at Arlington National Cemetery.
(Reach reporter Virginia Grantier at 250-8254 or at virginia.grantier@;bismarcktribune.com.)