It was with a mixture of sadness and very fond memories that I read the email from our President Fr. Ray Guiao, S.J. ’82 informing the Saint Ignatius community of the passing of Fr. Jack Kleinhenz, S.J. ’37. Fr Kleinhenz was the oldest living member of the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus, and he spent 50 of his 97 years as a student, administrator, teacher, tutor, and, most importantly, priest at Saint Ignatius. How fitting that a man so dedicated to helping others and one for whom our entire community is so grateful would enter eternal rest on Thanksgiving.
In the fall of 1976 I walked into my math classroom on the second floor of the old science building and was greeted by a fireplug of a priest with salt and pepper hair, black horn rimmed glasses, and a white lab coat covered in the chalk dust of many colors. Among my favorite classes at Saint Ignatius were those in the Math Department, and Analysis with Fr. Kleinhenz was no exception.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Fr. Kleinhenz had a good sense of humor and an easy-going demeanor, good-naturedly ribbing us as “knuckleheads” when our minds strayed from the task at hand. His approach to class and to his students made it difficult for me to imagine him in his earlier role as Assistant Principal for Discipline, but rumors of his prowess as a boxer made sure that none of us was willing to risk finding out if the rumors were true.
One thing that fascinated me about his pedagogical technique was his penchant for using different colors of chalk beyond the standard white or yellow. He would have little nibs of blue, green and pink chalk in his lab coat that he would pull out to write various mathematical formulae, functions, and graphs on the board. When those were too small to use he would go over to a shoe box on the window sill at the front of the room and re-fill his lab coat pockets.
One day as I walked into class I was feeling a bit mischievous and I moved the box of chalk from one window sill to another. When time came for him to get some new chalk he walked over to where the box should have been, and, finding nothing, he began searching around on his desk. While he shuffled through the books and papers on the desk I raised my hand and asked him what he was looking for. When he said that he was looking for the box of chalk I pointed to one of the window sills and asked, “Is that it?” With a puzzled look he picked up the box and went on with class.
When on another day the box mysteriously moved a second time and the same hand went up and the same finger pointed to the box in its new hiding place Fr. Kleinhenz knowingly smiled and thanked me for the assistance. Periodically throughout the year the chalk box would somehow find its way to a variety of nooks and crannies in the room, and Fr. Kleinhenz’s gaze would turn immediately to me and I would jump up and say, “Father, I think I might know where the box is.”
I loved Analysis class. I learned a lot of math that I will never use (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but more importantly I made a connection with a teacher for whom I had the greatest respect. I am guessing that Fr. Kleinhenz made a lot of connections with a lot of students during his time at Saint Ignatius, and that my story of a shared inside joke is one of many such experiences.
When in 2008 Fr. Kleinhenz, because of health issues, moved to Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Michigan, there was a palpable void on our campus. Except for the 1940s when he was in formation Fr. Kleinhenz had spent time at Saint Ignatius in every decade since the 1930s. During those decades he taught math to hundreds and hundreds of Wildcats, but he also taught us “knuckleheads” the value of hard and honest work. And most importantly, he taught us to take what we do very seriously while always taking ourselves lightly.
Rev. Jack Kleinhenz, S.J. ’37 – Requiescat in pace