BY TERRY BIBO
As always, Jerry Klein appeared bemused.
A young reporter, I was racing out of the Journal Star building, probably to conduct an interview. A fine arts critic, he was wandering in, probably to compose a review.
The sidewalk in front of the newspaper is narrow in places. A thigh-high brick wall barely restrains exuberant bushes and vines on the building side. A black-topped parking lot directs intermittent and often erratic traffic on the other.
Considering Klein’s eyes held the pre-writing glaze familiar to another journalist, it appeared we were on a collision course.
Without missing a beat, or even glancing my way, Klein leapt to the top of the wall. He splayed his arms to either side. Miming a tightrope walker, he teetered backward and forward, bending his knees to counter the nonexistent tension of the high wire. Uncommonly graceful for a burly fellow, he performed solely for my benefit, dropping lightly to his feet beside me with a silent flourish.
That was Klein. Genial. Steady. Self-contained.
Even while pretending his head was in the clouds, he was down to earth. It was a fine balancing act. Few of us manage to be equally at home in a church or a beer hall. Fewer manage it without a hint of fakery.
“He was the same person in both places,” says friend and frequent sailing companion David Jones.
An attorney by trade, on his own time Jones played violin for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. He nailed down a second chair as one of the looseknit throng — thespians, writers, photographers, restaurateurs, ex-cops — who met weekly at the Peoria Hofbrau for most of the last 30 years. A raucous bunch, they commandeered a table by the Hofbrau’s front door, united by two things: Beer and Klein.
In public, Klein’s role was to criticize most of them at one time or another. As perhaps Central Illinois’ most recognizable Catholic outside of the Bishop, the fellow deemed The Scribe could have posed a challenge to ale-ing non-believers. (Officially retired in 1992, he wrote traditional-minded columns for the JS editorial page until 2008. He continued to deliver conservative opinions via The Catholic Post for almost another decade thereafter, even from his hospital bed.)
Yet, in person, he was no Pharisee. To paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi, Jerry Klein may have preached the Gospel at all times, but he only used words where necessary.
“Jerry was extremely tolerant of others’ human foibles,” said Jones.
“I think he was such a soft-spoken person he considered it a breach of etiquette.”
“Devout Catholic faith. Devout with a capital C,” concurs photographer Jack Bradley, who spent countless hours criss-crossing Central Illinois for stories with Klein.
“He never never never pushed faith on me … He did not look down on you if you did not go to church or pray before every meal.”
Long-time symphony conductor Bill Wilsen was another close companion. Both Francophile bon vivants, the flamboyant Wilsen and the quieter Klein planned to tour the French countryside in a vintage Citroen until discovering it wasn’t possible to rent one which worked. (A plight that shouldn’t have surprised Klein, who often chronicled his travails tinkering with Renault automobiles.)
Wilsen and Jones were prime members of the group who extended their love of beer — and music and limericks and whopper-telling — to the Illinois River.
Several of them owned sailboats, including Klein, whose “Critic’s Choice” was a retirement gift to himself. They sailed, with wind and without, even after Asian carp claimed the water. While the maestro and the newsman never made it to France, Wilsen did take Klein to his own home waters near Long Island, NY.
“On a week-long, almost wintry sailing tour of the Chesapeake Bay in March 1999, tied up at the dock of Harris Crab House in Kent Narrows for lunch, the rest of ship’s company feasted on fresh oysters, crab, and other delicacies, while Jerry, who hardly ever ate seafood when he was growing up on the East Bluff (except for canned tuna fish on Fridays), ordered . . . burgers, and washed them down with tasty, local Aviator beer,” Wilsen recalls.
“Jerry wasn’t very colorful; he was unique,” Wilsen sums. “He didn’t do a lot of foolish things the way I do.”
Klein did attract outsized personalities as pals. Both sidekick and stabilizer, his beaming presence summoned the best from the best raconteur. He seldom interjected himself with more than a smile, unless prompted to do so. Even in the newsroom, where tirades, swearing and general fit-throwing were regular occurrences, Klein was more apt to shake his head in sorrow than cause a scene. Distressed when a column he’d written with particular care was spiked, his protest was to submit the piece to The New York Times, which ran it.
Former JS sports columnist Phil Theobald recently asked newspaper retirees to tell Klein stories. Few recalled any. The same thing happened when Jerry Jr. asked for tales at a Hofbrau gathering. This seems puzzling for a fellow who attended — almost literally — every play and party and artsy gathering of any sort for more than 30 years. (And a good chunk of festivities for 25 more.)
On reflection, it makes sense. Klein was the consummate listener.
“I was always the one who had to ask all the brash questions,” Bradley says. “He just listened … Sometimes he listened so well I swear he had a recorder on him.”
That quiet presence was prized, a seal of approval. (Although, as a football player, U.S. Navy veteran, ardent husband of Mary and father of seven children, he could hardly be described as a passive observer.)
Klein was rarely a performer, in the theatrical sense of that word. Still, his undergraduate college degree and graduate work were in music. He did more than tickle the ivories of a Steinway.
“It was palpable, how much he loved music,” Jones recalled of Klein’s reverent playing of Christmas hymns at holiday gatherings.
Holiday seasons, passing moments, fading twilights — all were favorite Klein themes. Jones framed copies of the penultimate column for both of them, “The Last Sail.” In it, Klein described “water the dull shade of hammered pewter” and coming “fine, powdery snows through which we can glide on our skis, like Norsemen” … and so much more.
“Even here, in the wet gloom of early November, there are lights up ahead, the warmth of Thanksgiving just beyond the horizon, the unearthly glow of Christmas, the delirium of the New Year,” he wrote. “And then, not too far away, time to begin thinking and planning for fitting out time, for launching the boat, for another season on the water in the sun, on the wind that might just be better than ever.
“One thing for sure: the seasons, like life, are inevitably far shorter than we ever imagined.”
Klein died without fanfare on Aug. 21, the day the outside world was fussing over a total solar eclipse. He was 90 years old, and the last couple of years were brutal. But he never complained, never lost his zest. That final balancing act proved words unnecessary weighed against hope for eternity.
For Jerry Klein’s column, “The Season’s Last Sail,” published in the Journal Star Nov., 5, 1995, go to: http://www.pjstar.com/lifestyle/19951105/klein-novembers-gray-reality.