BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — Longtime Maumee resident and World War II Navy veteran John Kleparek will turn 95 on Tuesday, August 3, and his family has planned a special event in his honor to celebrate the big day.
“This is a milestone,” said his son, Kevin Kleparek. “There are not too many World War II veterans left.”
John and his late wife Mary Eileen were married for 43 years, and they raised four children – John Michael, Sue, Mark and Kevin – in their family home, which was located across the street from the Maumee Branch Library.
“It was a great house to grow up in,” Kevin said. “We grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and it was different times back then. I remember when my buddies would be out playing and riding bikes, and I was helping dad with a plumbing project. I learned a lot from him.”
As a kid, John lived on Pulaski Street in Toledo near Nebraska Avenue and North Detroit in what is often referred to as the “Polish neighborhood.” He is the oldest of three children and the only boy in his family. His sister Helen Taber passed away in 2012. His youngest sister, Dorothy Kujawa, is 90 and has fond memories of growing up with John.
“He’s a good brother – he had to put up with two sisters,” Dorothy said. “He would help anybody out who needed help.”
John’s musical talents also emerged as a kid, as he took up the violin at a young age.
“He was really good – he could play all kinds of songs but then he had to stop playing when he joined the Navy and he never really took it up again,” Dorothy said.
John attended Wood-ward High School and enlisted in the Navy immediately after graduation in 1943.
“I wasted no time. I wanted to get in and I wanted to become an electrician, which I did,” John said.
He went to Camp Endicott in Rhode Island for basic training and was part of the U.S. Navy’s construction battalion better known as the Seabees. John trained in the electrical division. He was on the MS Santa Maria-USS Barnett naval ship carrying equipment to the Pacific region
His first dangerous encounter during battle happened when he was only 18, and the ship came across a floating mine. After nearly eight decades, John still gets emotional thinking about it.
“When they blasted that out of the water, everything just shook and rolled – they wanted to kill us,” he said.
His work in the Navy included installing airfields for the mustang bombers in Sumatra, New Guinea and the Philippines. Not long into his service, he said, “all hell broke loose.”
In Manila, he nearly died while installing a communication line when the tree below him was destroyed by gunfire that was intended for him.
“I was sweaty because it was so hot, and I wasn’t wearing a shirt, so I was a perfect target,” he said.
He eventually traveled to Tsingtao, also known as Qingdao, China, near the Yellow River before he was sent home in 1946. Upon his return, John attended one semester at The University of Toledo but quit school to work full time.
In 1949, he and Mary Eileen Feltis were married, and he forged a career in the music and retail industries.
For many years he worked at Grinnell’s, the Detroit-based piano manufacturer, which at one time was one of the largest music retailers in Toledo.
“I didn’t know one thing from another, but first they put me in an area to sell small radios and all of a sudden that department sprang up – I’m bragging now,” he said.
He eventually began selling televisions – carload after carload of them – and then pianos.
In the mid-1960s, he founded Kay Howard Music, which he owned and operated for several years.
He also worked at the Lion Store, selling furniture.
John was a hard worker and a good provider, establishing a strong work ethic early in life, his son Mark said.
“My dad worked a lot, and he learned a great deal about construction in the Navy, so he did a lot of home improvement projects himself,” Mark said. “I found it interesting, and he was a good teacher. To this day, some of my favorite pastimes are things that I learned working side by side with my dad.”
When Mark got older and began thinking about his future, he would sit up into the late hours, talking with his dad about the decisions he had to make.
“My dad would coach me and give me great advice, which helped me pursue my professional career in business and with my education,” he said.
John retired in 1988 at age 62, and his wife passed away a short time later in 1992. He still lives in Maumee but remains relatively quiet about his years in the military. He has traveled to Washington, D.C., but has not seen the World War II Memorial. He avoids the notoriety related to his service in the war and tears up when recalling the images and the memories of the deadly combat he witnessed at a young age.
He does remain highly interested in politics and does not hold back when it comes to discussing contemporary events.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” John said. “We’re very lucky that we have this guy called Biden in there – because that other guy – oh – there was many a time when I wanted to go give it to him. I was willing to give up my life for FDR and Kennedy was the same way – I am a staunch Democrat as you can probably tell.”
He enjoys spending time with his family, especially with his son, Kevin, who lives nearby. John has 10 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
“I have a wonderful family – I am so happy,” he said.