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By KEVIN KOELLING
TELL CITY – Larry Kleeman’s face reflected suspicion as he entered a meeting room in The Depot in Tell City Wednesday evening. The roomful of people awaiting his arrival were all applauding, and he didn’t know why.
“Who conspired to do this?” he asked, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
“There’s been a lot of people conspiring,” state Sen. Richard Young replied. “There are a lot of people that appreciate the work that you’ve been doing in the communities of this area of southern Indiana for a good many years.”
He’s served as a state senator for 26 years, Young continued, and Kleeman has held his job as executive director of the Lincoln Hills Development Corp. for 32 years.
“Thirty-four,” Kleeman corrected him, “and four of those have been pretty good years.”
“You’ve done a fantastic job, and it’s been a pleasure for me as a state senator to work with you,” Young told him, citing the assistance Lincoln Hills provides to people from preschool through senior-citizen ages.
One of the biggest projects they worked on together “for a good many years” was the Indiana Cotton Mill in Cannelton, the senator said. “I worked with a lot of people throughout the community trying to find a way to preserve that and a way to do it functionally.”
That work turned what had been an eyesore into what was opened in 2002 as a 70-unit affordable-housing complex after $8.5 million worth of renovation and restoration.
“A lot of people worked on it,” Kleeman noted.
Young got to the point of the gathering, a presentation recognizing Kleeman’s contributions to the community he and his agency serve.
“The governor asked me to bring this down to you,” the senator said before reading from a Sagamore of the Wabash certificate. Created during the term of Gov. Ralph Gates, who served from 1945 to 1949, the award’s name is from a term used by the Native American tribes of the northeastern United States to describe a lesser chief or a great man among the tribe to whom the true chief would look for wisdom and advice. That’s according to information at the official state website, which also notes, “it is a personal tribute usually given to those who have rendered a distinguished service to the state or to the governor. Among those who have received Sagamores have been astronauts, presidents, ambassadors, artists, musicians, politicians, and ordinary citizens who have contributed greatly to our Hoosier heritage.”
Kleeman has endeared himself to the citizens of Indiana, according to the certificate, and is distinguished “by his humanity in living, his loyalty in friendship, his wisdom in council and his inspiration in leadership.”
“You got me,” Kleeman said when Young finished reading. “I really appreciate this … this means an awful lot to me.” To the Lincoln Hills employees in the room, he said, “I appreciate working with all you folks. All of the things that we’ve accomplished, we accomplished together.” The Cotton Mill was a community effort that also brought in state and federal resources and “was a testament to all of the folks in this area who worked so hard to make our community better,” he added.
Francis Lueken, a Ferdinand attorney who earned a Sagamore Award when Joseph Kernan was governor, said he has “had opportunities to work with Sen. Young and Rep. (Russ) Stilwell over the years to have a few different distinguished Hoosiers be recognized” with the award. He gathered information from Lincoln Hills staff members about Kleeman’s contributions to the corporation “and really, all of southern Indiana, and shared that with Sen.
Young and his staff. They, in turn, passed that on to the governor’s office.”
Kleeman served in the Indiana National Guard from 1969 until 1975, achieving the rank of first lieutenant. He began work in 1970 as a caseworker and within 18 months, at age 24, was named director for the county’s welfare department.
He went to work as director of social services for Lincoln Hills in 1976 and became its executive director in 1980. He was a founding member and secretary for the Perry County Group Homes for troubled youth and has served for eight years on the Tell City-Troy Township School Board, including four years as president. He joined a steering committee to organize Perry County’s Habitat for Humanity effort and is a past president of the Indiana Community Action Program Directors Association. His list of accomplishments and community involvement is long. It also includes an expansion of local Head Start programs from 72 to 371 children and construction of seven new Head Start centers to serve them. He oversees a staff of approximately 150 people that provides services to “nearly 10,000 of our most vulnerable citizens,” according to the information his staff provided, and under his leadership, “had total fiscal responsibilities of over $16 million in 2011.” In addition to serving as executive director and CEO, he also leads or coordinates the activities of 13 different entities affiliated with LHDC, they also said.
Kleeman’s community involvement includes presidential roles for Lincoln Village Inc., Cotton Mill Apartments Inc. and Lincoln Manor Apartments Inc. He has served with Catholic Charities, the Indiana Adult Literacy Coalition, the Perry County Long Range Planning Committee, Perry County United Way and the state Advisory Council to the Indiana Commission on Aging, among many other organizations.
“It’s been a real blessing to have so many servant-leaders throughout the area,” Lueken said. “The people who provide that kind of service to their communities need to be recognized. They serve as encouragement to other, younger, budding servant-leaders.”
About Kleeman earning the Sagamore, Young said “he should have had one a long time ago for his accomplishments in this community.”