John Klee celebrates 100 years of life and history

St. John, Ind.–John Klee, Hammond, Ind. native, former Highland, Ind., resident, and current ParkPlace Health & Wellness Center of St. John resident, turned 100 years old last month. He enjoyed multiple celebrations with neighbors, friends, and family at his residence at the senior skilled nursing community that he calls home.

David Sadewasser and Carol Sadewasser, John’s beloved niece and nephew, wrote most of the following account about John’s life as it coincided with world events.

Birth and Early Life in the Roaring 20s

John Klee, Jr., was born to parents John and Sophia Klee (and older sister Anna) around 9 p.m. on March 18, 1919, at his parents’ home in Hammond, Ind. When Sophia began to go into labor, John, Sr., rode his motorcycle to the hospital to secure the services of a midwife, but by the time the midwife arrived, so had John, Jr.

John was raised in a house on a dirt road surrounded by woods and shallow swamps, near a streetcar line that connected rural Hessville to downtown Hammond on present day 165th Street, while wild berries and asparagus were harvested in the woods a short walk from the house. Water was obtained from a pump well outside the front door, and toilet facilities consisted of an outhouse in back of the house.

Nationally, Prohibition came into force two months before John’s birth, with Woodrow Wilson residing in the White House.  Warren G. Harding would win the 1920 Presidential election in a relative landslide over a weak Democratic candidate, James Cox and the Socialist, Eugene V. Debs.

By all accounts John’s early years were marked by periodic bouts of illness.  He reportedly suffered from frequent nosebleeds, which were largely treated with vinegar-soaked towels and compresses.

“As a young boy, I was always sick,” John says. “The doctor told my mother and dad that I would’t live beyond 10 years because my body didn’t have any resistance to disease. He told me that any sickness that came along, I would get it.”

John chuckles. “Well,” he says, “I outlived them all.”

John’s elementary school, Oliver P. Morton, named for the 2nd  governor of Indiana, was two miles from his house, so his sister Anna and he derived quite a bit of exercise in decent weather walking to and from school.  But the highlights of John’s boyhood years in the 20s were summer trips to his grandparents’ farm in Missouri to indulge his passion for fishing in local streams with the kids from the towns of Pilot Knob, Arcadia, and Ironton.  Trips down Route 66 put his summer experience in good company with much of America during the 20s.

The decade of the 20’s ended with the nation reeling and sinking into what was to become the Great Depression after the stock market crash of October, 1929.  The Klee family was not immune from its effects.

John’s Teenage Years in the Hard Times of the 30s

John Klee entered the decade of the 30s at the age of 12 and going to junior high school.  This meant going to a newly-built school, only 6 blocks from home, named for ex-President Warren G. Harding, who died in office in 1923, to be succeeded by the taciturn, “Silent Cal” Coolidge.  At thetime John started junior high, the country was being led by Herbert Hoover, who won the 1928 election over Al Smith.

John remembers with fondness a number of his teachers at Harding, among them Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Bailey, Ms. Maud Fife, and Mrs. Jackson. By this time, John had developed an aptitude for drawing, so when his choice for high school was made in 1932, John chose to join his sister and attend Hammond Technical Vocational High School (Hammond Tech).  He specialized in drafting and putting his drawing skills to use producing blueprints.  John also learned to play the trombone and participated in Hammond Tech’s marching and concert band under the direction of Mr. Nilo Hovey.  John fondly remembers Fourth of July parades from downtown Hammond to near the corner of Hohman Avenue and 165th Street.

But the Depression was a very tough time for the family in general.  His father, John Sr., experienced periodic unemployment, where the family was forced to subsist on county rations and to queue up in food lines.  John remembers long walks in shoes held together with straps and strings to obtain food and supplies for the family.  John persisted through the hard times and graduated from Hammond Tech in 1936.

“The Depression was hard for everyone,” John says. “I was in high school when it started, and I didn’t get to go to college. I went to work instead.”

Fresh with his diploma, John faced the challenges of tens of thousands of other job seekers in the 30s:  the Depression and few businesses hiring.  He quickly realized his dreams of getting a job in drafting were fading. His second choice was to become a long-haul trucker.  That aspiration died when he couldn’t afford the bond required to be deposited on the big rig.  So John turned to the still-functioning steel industry.  His sister Anna had a clerical position at Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company in the Indiana Harbor section of East Chicago.  With her referral, John got a job as a laborer late in 1936 with Youngstown, an employer that was to be part of his experience for the next 46 years.

The 40s and WWII

As the decade of the 40s began, the Depression was still ravaging the American economy, despite various efforts of the New Deal programs, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt.  War wasraging in Europe at several venues, while fascism gained hold in Italy and Spain in open coordination with Nazi Germany. Additionally, the war machine of Imperial Japan was gearing up for its assaults in the Pacific.  The United States unofficial neutrality would be shattered by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor off Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941.

John Klee was working at the mills of Youngstown as a fork-lift driver, hauling huge coils of steel sheet to processing lines, when his draft notice arrived in the mail in 1942. His Army induction papers ordered him to report to a camp for basic training in Tulahoma, Tennessee, near Chattanooga.  So John boarded a train from Union Station in Chicago to begin his military service.

John’s destination for military training was at an encampment near Yuma, Arizona.  His platoon was being prepared for a deployment to Northern Africa.  The climate and terrain of the desert was another new experience for John, but his resourcefulness earned him a number of promotions, and by the time his stint in Yuma ended, he had attained the rank of Sergeant.  One notable trip John had while stationed in Arizona was a ride on the “plank road” over the Algodones Dunes, the portion of US Highway 80 that covered a section of the road between the Colorado River and El Centro, Calif.  This was also John’s first trip into California, where his aunt Elizabeth and cousin Betty would eventually relocate in the 50s.

John somewhat surprisingly got his orders for deployment to Europe in 1943.  The official reason was that the Northern African campaign was winding down and more troops were needed in France.  John departed from New Jersey on the HMS Queen Mary destined for Glasgow, Scotland, where he would first set foot on the European continent.

John by this time had declared his intention to serve in the Medical Corps as a combat medic.  During a skirmish near Annecy, France, in 1944, John had a brush with death.

“During the daytime, I was digging a big two-man trench for me and Joseph, a buddy of mine. At the time, I was just thinking of where we were going to sleep, and to make it sort of safe,” John says. “I piled the sand up around it on both sides. There were a bunch of logs and wood pieces lying on the ground, so I figured when we went to sleep, I’d put a cover on top of the thing. But by 9 that night, mortar shells came.”

John describes the scene that followed. “The mortar blew the mud every which way,” he says. “I got a big gash in my leg from shrapnel, and Joe got a broken collarbone. But that’s the only damage we had. We were lucky to be alive.”

John received emergency treatment in France, then was transferred to a hospital in Great Britain for rehabilitation.  While there, John received his orders for transfer back to the United States, although he was not discharged from obligations for future deployments.  While awaiting the possibility of deployment to the Pacific, the war ended following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  John’s military service was over, and he was awarded a Purple Heart.

John soon returned to work at Youngstown, but the latter half of the 40s were filled with more eventful personal times, among them when his father, John, Sr., suffered a fatal stroke.

The Cold War, the Suburbs, and the rest of the 50s

One of the earliest events of the new decade which would be of importance to John Klee was the marriage of his sister, Anna, to Emil Sadewasser, whom she had met at Youngstown several years earlier.  In May of 1950, the couple wed and they moved into a new house on the same street where John lived with his mother.  Emil was a widower and had a 13-year old son, Marvin.  Marvin soonbecame friends with John, and the two would enjoy many fishing trips together over the next 15 years.  Another enjoyable pastime was fairly regular weekend cribbage matches involving John, Emil, and Marvin.

At Youngstown, John was promoted to the position of Roller, where he was responsible for the operation of equipment that processed gigantic steel coils through flattening, tempering, and coating mills to attain desired hardness, ductility, and tin coating thicknesses, among other properties.

The 50s was also an era of growth for Hammond and Hessville.  Missouri Avenue, where the house stood in which John was born and where he still resided, was finally paved in 1956, and shortly thereafter, woods and swamps gave way to several new homes both north and south of the Klee residence.  The Klees and Sadewassers were now more or less urbanites.

The other primary diversion for John and his mother were summer trips to the grandparents’ farm in Missouri.  Mr. Frank Tolnay had died in the 40s, and John’s grandmother, Francis Tolnay, came to live with the Klees on Missouri Avenue. But her heart was on the farm in Missouri, so the family made Route 66 excursions as often as they could to relax to the sound of whippoorwills in the poplar trees on the property, and to visit with their family friends, the Pallos, in the town of Ironton.

By the end of the 50s, the house in Hessville was showing its age, and John sought a move away from the old neighborhood, setting his sight on suburban town of Highland.

The Turbulent 60s

One of the first defining events of the 60s for John Klee was his purchase of a home on Garfield Street in Highland.  The old house in Hessville was beginning to nickel and dime the family and itlacked a basement.  By this time, John’s mother, Sophie, while still quite hardy, was beginning to tire of increasing traffic and proliferation of school-aged children that came with the housing expansion on their street and adjoining streets. The new house, already 12 years old, provided a significant upgrade to their lives, while adding only three extra miles to his daily work commute.

For the most part, business was booming at Youngstown in the 60s, and the population of Hammond and Lake County grew rapidly, eventually to attain peaks in the early 70s before a gradual decline began to set in. Amazingly, John coped for years with alternating work shifts between working days from 7am to 3pm, afternoons from 3pm and 11pm, and the midnight shift from 11pm to 7am.  As his seniority grew, so did the length of his summer vacations, which John almost always spent at the grandparent’s farm in Missouri.

But slowly, conditions at the Missouri property were changing.  A nearby mining operation had designs on building a tailings pond for their operations. Little by little, John’s neighbors opted to sell their land, and eventually John and his mother reluctantly sold their land as well.  At this point, John was still decades away from retirement, but he maintained aspirations of someday relocating to property in Southeast Missouri near some of his favorite fishing locales.

The 70s and Special Acts of Kindness

The decade of the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the impeachment and resignation of President Richard Nixon was relatively turbulent in John Klee’s life.  First, John dealt with the sale of the beloved Missouri property.  Although he retained friendships with nearby residents of that property, trips to Missouri were never the same.  His sister Anna was widowed in the mid-60s andcontinued to suffer declines in her health, mostly arising from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and the side effects of the long-term use of steroids to manage the symptoms. Anna’s children David and  Carol were transitioning from high school into college. Through these times, John maintained closeness to his sister’s family, and in many ways became a trusted surrogate father to Carol and David.

Anna succumbed to complications from the infection of a leg injury and died in September of 1974 while her son David was in graduate school at Purdue in Lafayette, Ind., and Carol was beginning her senior year at the same school.

“I will never forget the kindness and generosity of the many visits John made to Lafayette to treat me to lunch and help me through a very difficult time in my life,” David says.

The death of her daughter was also very difficult for John’s mother.  In many ways, she was never the strong and feisty presence so recognizable in her earlier life.  Sophie’s health also began to decline in the latter half of the 70s, and the early symptoms of dementia were quite apparent by the end of the troubled decade.

Retirement and more loss in the 80s

As the decade of the 80s began, the USA found itself in a state of hyperinflation, due in large part to a squeeze in oil output by OPEC countries.  Also plaguing the nation was an intractable hostage situation where the Islamic Republic of Iran, under the despotic Ayatollah Khomeni, held 44 American citizens in Teheran.

Life was also providing daily challenges for John Klee. Upon his reaching 62 years of age in 1981, John was essentially forced to elect early retirement from Youngstown to care for his mother, who showed increasing signs of dementia.  He became concerned about leaving her in the house alone as she began to exhibit the habit of wandering.  Trying to take trips of more than a short distance was becoming problematic.  As of two years prior, John attempted to take his mother to Columbia, Mo., to visit her grandson David, but after about 25 miles on the road, Mrs. Klee did not recognize where she was or understand the destination, and the trip had to be aborted.

His mother’s dementia progressed, and throughout her decline, John was a patient and loving caregiver to his mother. His mother’s death took an understandable toll on John’s outlook.  Where he had originally dreamed of retiring to southeast Missouri to be near his favorite fishing lakes, John no longer aspired to a relocation, and instead worked to make his home in Highland welcoming to remaining friends and family.

While always a privately spiritual man, John now sought out a home for his faith in the congregation of the Covenant United Presbyterian Church in Hessville.  He served his God and community well, regularly delivering food to the underprivileged of the community.  John was also honored to become a deacon in his church.

The 90s and beyond

Aging often comes with new challenges, and those challenges did not spare John Klee.  In 1990, John was hospitalized for the first time in decades. This time the culprit was a gall bladder attack, butfortunately the surgery went without complications, and John was able to resume normal activities.

His spiritual life with his church occupied a large part of his time.  He particularly enjoyed the church’s annual Madrigal Christmas festivities and made several good and lifelong friends.  John enjoyed frequent trips to visit the his good friend Shirley and her husband Wayne in Boonville, Ind., especially in spring, where they all engaged in mushroom hunting.

As time passed, aging caught up with John, but the kindness of his neighbors on Garfield Street and others greatly helped him to maintain life in his home. John is especially grateful for all the assistance provided by his next-door neighbors to the west, Tim and Ginger; his next door neighbors to the east, Nate and Lois; his neighbors across the street, Don and Angie; his friend Carol Mayden, who provided him transportation on shopping trips; and his housekeeper Cindy.  When John could no longer drive safely, all of these wonderful people selflessly looked after his needs around the house and were always available for pleasant conversation.

Additionally, his extended family members remaining in Northwest Indiana, (Marv and his wife Linda; their children, Brian and Janel; and all the grandchildren, Nicholas, Nathan, Noah [Janel’s children] and Evan and Milena [Brian’s children]) always kindly invited John to family occasions and frequently visited him and offered assistance, helping around his house on tasks large and small.  John’s niece, Carol, took a special role in helping John with important matters.

Finally, John’s residence in Highland ended in 2017, when diminished mobility no longer allowed him to maintain the house.  Again, neighbors stepped up in his time of need. Tim and Ginger purchased his home.

John’s new and present residence at Providence Park Place of St. John now provides him the care he needs as he starts to pursue life in his own second century. “This is a great place,” John says. “I’m very happy here.”

A reflection of the life described above gives a picture of a man whose selflessness dictated that he give up his own dreams to help those he loved, and whose kindness has made an indelible mark on those who have come in contact with him.

“I wasn’t supposed to be here still,” John says. “But I made it anyway through hard times. And it’s been a good life.”

Thank you for allowing us to be a small part of your incredible story.