Larry Kleven acted like a proud dad every time he saw one of his former pupils around town.
No matter how many years passed since they were in his classroom, his wife Grace said Kleven called all of them “his kids.”
Before retiring in 1995, Kleven taught math (plus a few years of history) at Central Middle School in Eden Prarie for 35 years. Along the way, he also helped start the Spanish language and wrestling programs in the district.
“Boy, did he just love his kids,” Grace said. “He just loved seeing them again. Some came to the house before he passed.”
Kleven, 87, a longtime Eden Prairie resident who moved to Chanhassen, died Jan. 17 of cancer. (Click here for his funeral notice.) Family and friends describe him as a caring man who made friends easily thanks to his welcoming smile and great sense of humor.
“He created a life intentionally to love others and to show kindness and inclusivity,” said his granddaughter, Andrea, during Kleven’s Feb. 4 funeral at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie.
As the saying goes, the influence of a good teacher can never be erased.
Many of his former students shared stories on an Eden Prairie-focused Facebook page of how he impacted their lives.
One person remembered him as a “kind, fair and clever” teacher, while another wrote that his joyous attitude “made class such a fun place to be.”
“He was a great man who touched my life and the lives of so many others,” someone else posted. “Job well done, Larry!”
While speaking at the funeral, Pastor Rod Anderson said that Kleven found some point of success in every student’s life in which he could give compliment after compliment.
“I picture Larry marking every student’s math paper with a number of problems they got right instead of the number they got wrong,” Anderson said. “Think about it. The test page was not so much about math problems to solve as a page of mathematical opportunities to succeed. I think that’s the way Larry treated kids.”
“If one of his kids was struggling, he wanted to help them,” she said.
Dedicated to helping ‘his kids’
When asked to describe her husband of 62 years, Grace took a moment to think.
Besides shaping young minds as a teacher, Kleven’s life centered around his family, faith, country (he served in the U.S. Marines for three years), community, and fishing (which he learned to love from his grandfather).
“He was very gentle and was good to everybody,” Grace said. “It didn’t make any difference. His kids, too.”
Grace said he made home visits to his students who hadn’t come to school for teacher conferences at the start of his career. She remembers tagging along.
“I don’t know of any teacher who had done that,” Grace said. “He really liked his kids and liked to see them do well.”
He also had fun ways to help them learn math. One was by playing cribbage on Fridays.
Grace said Kleven didn’t know anything about wrestling before being asked by then-superintendent Veir Wood to serve as the district’s first wrestling coach.
“I’ll tell it to you just like he would say it,” Grace said. “(Wood) asked him about starting up a wrestling program because kids wanted to wrestle. Larry told him, ‘Well, the only thing I’ve ever done is wrestle in the backseat of a car.’ You can take it from there.”
So, he taught himself about the sport by reading a book. (Kleven did the same when he started the Spanish program.) It must have helped. He was elected into the charter class of the Eden Prairie Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2016.
“He knew a lot about wrestling when he was finished,” Grace said.
Grace described her husband as “old school.” She said he decided to retire when the school wanted him to use a computer.
“He never had a computer; he never had a cell phone,” she said. “He was like, ‘You talk on the phone if you want to talk to me.'”
Remembered fondly by friends
When Harlan Leopold became the head wrestling coach, he asked Kleven to assist. Both taught together at the middle school and were good friends.
Kleven would run all the drills during practice while keeping the wrestlers on task, Leopold wrote in a remembrance read by Scott Spangberg at the funeral.
“I know that the only reason we won a number of conference championships was due to Larry’s leadership and commitment to the sport,” Leopold wrote. “I also remember during many matches with our conference opponents, I would ask Larry how many of the remaining matches we needed to win to secure a victory. He was always better at keeping track of that than I was.”
Willi Husaby, another friend and former middle school teacher, said fishing was Kleven’s passion. He loved being out in nature.
“I spent many days ice fishing with him, and we had a lot of trips up to Canada and Lake Mille Lacs,” he said.
Husaby remembered Kleven taking students ice fishing on Staring Lake as part of the school’s “Your Choice Day.” Twice a year, students could sign up to participate in special activities offered by teachers.
“That was very popular with the kids,” he said of ice fishing. “Because a lot of kids never had that opportunity to actually ice fish. He would have more kids sign up than he could handle.”
Husaby, who retired as a shop teacher 18 years ago, said his son Ben, now 56, fondly remembers playing trivia on Fridays in Kleven’s eighth-grade math class.
“He still brings that up,” Husaby said of his son. “He said it was the best day of the week.”