By DONNA URSCHEL
From a young age, John W. Kluge understood the importance of having the right tools, and for him, those tools were books and other forms of information that could lead to greater knowledge and a better life.
Kluge, who built a communications empire, Metromedia, became a uniquely generous benefactor to the Library of Congress. He died peacefully Tuesday, Sept. 7, in his home in Charlottesville, Va., at the age of 95.
The founding chairman of the Library’s 20-year-old James Madison Council, Kluge funded important initiatives for the Library: the National Digital Library, the John W. Kluge Center, the Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, the Library’s Leadership Development Program, the exhibitions “Rome Reborn” and “Revelations from the Russian Archives,” and many more projects that helped bring knowledge and opportunities to the American public.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington earlier said, “John Kluge has, at a number of key points, helped the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution find new ways to perform its historic mission as it enters its third century. His contributions have been strategically important both in expanding the Library’s outreach to our citizenry and in deepening its service to scholarship.”
John Werner Kluge was born in the medieval town of Chemnitz, Germany, on Sept. 21, 1914. His father died in World War I. In 1922, Kluge, at age 8, and his mother, who remarried, immigrated to the United States to start a new life in Detroit with his German-American stepfather.
Kluge all his life remembered the moment when the ship pulled into New York City—when as a young boy, carrying his only possession, a ceramic Dresden horse, he stood on the deck and saw the Statue of Liberty. In a video tribute to Kluge in 2003, the philanthropist recalled, “All the adult people were crying and waving and I got caught up in that euphoria.” He added, “I was very lucky. [If I were still in Germany.] I would have been in Hitler’s army.”
Adjusting to the public school system in Detroit, however, was a struggle. Kluge said, “I would get into fights ‘cause those kids would call me a Hun. I hated having an accent, and I wanted to be Americanized as quickly as I could.”
To speed the process of learning and mastering the English language, Kluge carried an important tool. “I walked around with a dictionary under my arm for many years,” he said.
When Kluge was in high school, his stepfather, Oswald Leitert, a man who didn’t value education, wanted the 16-year-old to join him in the family painting and contracting business. Kluge recalled, “I didn’t want to go into any business; I felt I needed more tools. That’s why I left home.”
Kluge went to live in the home of his high school typing teacher, Gracia DaRatt. She became his mentor and encouraged him to do his best and further his education. He excelled as a student. “I had to excel to get a scholarship—not because I wanted to; I had to,” he recalled in the video tribute.
After studying for two years at Detroit City College, now known as Wayne State University, he transferred to Columbia University, which offered him a full scholarship and living expenses. As a new graduate, Kluge entered a history contest and won $2,000. With the winnings, he bought a new Ford for the high school teacher who had helped him so much. “I had more fun giving her that car than anything I can remember, because it was such a surprise to her,” Kluge said.
After college, Kluge went to work for a printing company in Detroit and rose from shipping clerk to vice president of sales in 18 months. World War II broke out, and Kluge joined the Army as an enlisted man. He ended up as captain on Gen. George Marshall’s staff in military intelligence.
Soon after the war, Kluge read an article in the Wall Street Journal that shaped the rest of his career. The article said one could start a radio station for $15,000. Kluge bought WGAY in Silver Spring, Md., and soon expanded into several markets, including African-American radio stations. Along the way, he ventured into the food-brokerage business, introducing Fritos to the American public.
Kluge expanded his business further in the early 1960s and named his company Metromedia, the nation’s first major independent broadcasting entity, which grew to include several television stations, 14 radio stations, outdoor advertising, the Harlem Globetrotters, the Ice Capades, radio paging and mobile telephones.
In the mid-1980s, Kluge sold off Metromedia to various buyers. The television stations were purchased by Rupert Murdoch and would later form the core of the Fox television network.
As a result, Kluge had more time to become a dedicated philanthropist. He helped restore the Statue of Liberty, supported educational institutions and quietly helped people in need. In 1990, in his desire to make a difference, he became a founding member of the James Madison Council, the Library’s private-sector support group. His generous benefaction to the Library has given Americans precious tools to further their knowledge, creativity and scholarship.
Billington said, “He immediately got aboard with the National Digital Library with the idea of taking the collections out to the localities, to the people where they live, which is a tremendously democratic thing to do.”
In the video tribute, Kluge said, “David Packard and I jumpstarted the Internet for the Library of Congress. That’s the new frontier for succeeding generations.”
Kluge also established the Leadership Development Program, which is designed to prepare a diverse group of leaders for the Library in the 21st century. Never forgetting his own roots, Kluge identified with minority status. He once said, “As an immigrant, you are a minority. If minorities get the proper tools, they’ll do as well as anyone else.”
In addition to exhibitions and acquisitions, Kluge helped the Library by donating $60 million to endow a new center that brings the best thinkers to Capitol Hill to stimulate and energize one another, to distill wisdom from the Library’s rich resources and to interact with policymakers in Washington.
The endowment also supports the $1 million Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, an international award that recognizes a recipient’s deep intellectual accomplishment in the human sciences, and a body of work that demonstrates growth in maturity and range over the years.
“I would rather, by far, invest in people than buildings,” Kluge said. “If I can infuse a mind to improve itself, that knowledge will be passed down to children and their children’s children.”
Kluge in the video tribute explained, “The philanthropy comes naturally, because I know when you pass out of this world, you don’t take anything with you. In the sands of time, we make very little difference. But what difference we can make, we should try to make.”
Kluge is survived by his wife Maria Tussi Kluge and three children, Joseph, Samantha and John Jr.
Statement by the Librarian of Congress on the Passing of Philanthropist John W. Kluge
John W. Kluge was a uniquely generous benefactor in the long history of the Library of Congress. In a number of important ways, he has helped us make the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution an innovative force for the new millennium.
Mr. Kluge was the founding chairman of the Library’s first private-sector national advisory group, the James Madison Council, which since its inception 20 years ago has funded important initiatives in the Library’s public outreach efforts.
His early donation for the National Digital Library helped create a powerful new educational resource for the country.
His $60 million endowment for the John W. Kluge Center has enabled the Library to bring to Capitol Hill great scholars to benefit from our collections and curators, and to deepen the dialogue between learning and legislators. The endowment also supports the $1 million Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, an international award that recognizes a recipient’s deep intellectual accomplishment in the human sciences, and a body of work that demonstrates growth in maturity and range over the years.
Mr. Kluge energized the Library’s bicentennial celebration in 2000 with a special grant to establish a new leadership development program, which is preparing a diverse group of individuals with strong minority participation for leadership roles at the Library. He championed a partnership with the Ad Council that has publicized important messages such as historical education and lifelong literacy. He also made possible historic exhibitions at the Library of international materials never before shown in the United States.
More recently, Mr. Kluge contributed the first $5 million for what is now the Library of Congress Experience, an award-winning, interactive educational experience in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. In 2008, Mr. Kluge cut the ribbon on the new passageway linking the Capitol Visitor Center with the Library of Congress Experience, which he called “the magic at the end of the tunnel.”
We are grateful not just for John Kluge’s remarkable philanthropy, but also for his wise counsel and warm friendship. He never attached a single condition to any of his grants, and he never sought aggrandizement for his generosity.
The Library of Congress will forever remember and be indebted to John W. Kluge for all he has done for this great institution and for our country.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Office of Communications.