The Cincinnati suburb of Carthage has always been a dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of place.
Vine Street, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, cuts through the heart of the town, bringing outsiders to the hardware stores and used car lots that line either side of the street. Small, stick-frame houses are squeezed tightly side by side, filled by working class families who either farmed the fertile land or hammered out a day’s labor in the industrial sector on the other side of the Mill Creek.
Norbert and Gertrude Klekamp owned one of those houses. Gertrude stayed at home and raised their four children—three boys and a girl—while Norbert struggled to bring in enough money to pay the mortgage, groceries and tuition for the kids to attend Catholic school at St. Charles Borromeo.
As each of the three boys grew and prepared for high school, though, the struggles increased. Neither Norbert nor Gertrude finished high school, but they knew the value of education and wanted nothing but the best for their children.
Rather than have them attend Central Vocational or nearby Roger Bacon High School as most Carthage kids did, Gertrude loaded them onto a streetcar and took them downtown to St. Xavier High School where they met with John Benson, S.J., the school’s president. It was the best high school in the city, but tuition was $140, a steep sum for the 1940s.
“I can pay for one,” she would say, “but that’s all.”
So each year they made a deal. If she paid for one, all three could attend, under one condition—they would have to work for the difference. Gertrude agreed. If her boys knew anything, it was how to study and how to work.
Don, the middle son, spent his afternoons cleaning up the physics lab after a day’s worth of experiments. Bob, the oldest, and Bill swept up other parts of the school.
In the end, it worked. Bob earned his doctorate and taught business at Xavier. Bill went to work for IBM and retired at age 55. Don forged a different path. Fr. Munson, a Jesuit scholastic who taught Latin at the school, pushed him to enroll in the Honors AB program at Xavier, the most intense academic offering at the University in which students major in Classics and minor in philosophy.
“There were only eight of us in the program,” he says with a laugh. “We were a bunch of geeks.”
He spent his summers working odd jobs—assembling cars at the Ford plant, working construction, loading box cars, running garbage trucks, bartending—to raise as much money as he could to pay for tuition.
With no family contribution, though, it was never enough. The rest had to come from scholarships set up by others—a gift that wasn’t lost on him at the time, and hasn’t been lost since.
After graduating in 1954, Don went on to earn a law degree. Two years later help create a new law firm, Keating Muething and Klekamp. The three-person firm has grown to have more than 100 lawyers, and Don meets with the new associates and tries to pass along some of the Jesuit lessons he learned about giving back and being a man or woman for others.
“We’ve been blessed to have a number of significant and successful clients,” he says. “One way to give back is to offer financial assistance to the poor and underprivileged.”
Really, though, he doesn’t need to say anything at all. All they have to do is follow his lead. He set up a scholarship at Xavier for Honors AB students—paying forward the help that was previously given him.
He and his wife Marianne—“I would never make a gift without asking her first because it’s her money as much as mine”—have also created scholarships at St. Xavier High School and a professorship at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. They helped fund the new Legal Aid Society building, and Don spent five years as president of the nonprofit organization, which provides free legal assistance to the poor. They have long supported the National Right to Life Society and the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, an
They’ve supported the Catholic Inner-City Schools Education Fund and Visions Community Services, which offers early childhood education and support services for parents in poverty.
Everywhere he was helped—be it in schools or law or Catholic initiatives—he’s turned around and offered help in return.
“We grew up broke,” he says. “But we had the greatest parents in the world. My mom was extremely wise. She got us up and we went to 8:00 a.m. Mass every day, and I still go St. Gertrude in Indian Hill for Mass every morning. She gave us all that structure, and that’s still important in my life.”