Elmer Klumpp was born at home in a wood-frame farmhouse in central Michigan, two days before Thanksgiving.
He shares a birth year with the Great Depression, but he didn’t know he’d grown up poor until he went to college.
His mother’s garden was always full of vegetables. The peach, cherry, and apple trees were heavy with fruit much of the year. Sunday dinner was always a freshly butchered cow, hog or chicken.
Elmer’s father raised his family 100 yards from the house where he had been born. Neither of Elmer’s parents finished high school. Their own siblings raised families on farmhouses within walking distance. They worked hard and loved each other.
What that meant for them was that some things—tough things—didn’t get talked about. Maybe it was easier that way for people with limited resources, living in that time and place, Elmer speculates.
For Elmer, that tough thing was stuttering. He has stuttered for as long as he can remember, stumbling over sounds and having them catch in his throat sometimes for multiple seconds while he struggles to get them out.
He was embarrassed and anxious about this as a child, of course. But no one —- not his parents, siblings, extended relatives, teachers, or friends —ever made fun, or acknowledged it at all, for that matter.
“It was like a secret that no one was supposed to talk about,” he said.
That is, until seventh grade.
Elmer still remembers the kid who spoke of his problem out loud. His name was Ryan; he had moved to Elmer’s hometown from Detroit.
“I remember him walking up to me and saying, ‘Elmer, I’ve never heard anyone talk the way you do.’ And I was stunned.”
This thing that had dominated so much of Elmer’s internal life, someone else had finally spoken of.
While Elmer’s teachers didn’t address his stuttering, they did talk to him about his smarts.
Elmer was valedictorian of his class of six students, and one day, shortly before graduation, the principal of his school asked to visit his parents. “She was an old battle-ax … very stern and always wearing dark clothes,” Elmer said. “That day she came into our house and said, ‘It would be a crying shame if Elmer didn’t go to college.’”
Elmer’s parents had never talked with him about what would happen when he finished high school; presumably they thought he would stay on and farm near them.
But they didn’t resist when he decided to apply to, and attend, Michigan State.
“I had no interest in farming,” he said. “I shudder to imagine what I would have done if that principal hadn’t turned me onto the idea of college.”
Elmer studied soil science, as he knew something about the land, and he wanted a job that wouldn’t require much talking to people. Then he was drafted during the Korean War, and he worked in a construction/engineering battalion, building trails and roads for tanks in Germany.
When he came home to America, he took a job as a soil scientist.
Then one day he read something in the Chicago Tribune about a speech clinic at Western Michigan University that was working with people who stuttered. Elmer returned to Michigan and knocked on the head researcher’s door. “I told him I’d like to be part of what he was doing.”
Elmer spent a full academic year at the clinic.
He learned that when he sang, he didn’t stutter.
He learned that when he stuttered, he shouldn’t hang his head in shame. He should keep making eye contact, even if the other person seemed uncomfortable. He should fight through it.
And it helped.
It helped when he pursued a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan. It helped when he got a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he eventually became special assistant to the undersecretary of agriculture.
And it helped when he met his second wife, Marilyn.
“I gained much more confidence,” Elmer said.
Elmer’s first marriage had ended, and he had custody of the couple’s twin girls when he took his government job in Washington. The three lived in Alexandria, and Elmer was active in the girls’ school. One day, the school counselor sent home a note and mentioned in passing that she was divorced.
It took him a month or so to figure it out, but he realized that perhaps the counselor wanted him to know that she was single.
So he invited her to dinner.
That was one of the best turning points of his life, Elmer says. The two have been married for 39 years. They share a love of family and music, attending symphony concerts regularly.
They also have endured their share of pain.
One of Elmer’s twin daughters took her own life when she was a young adult, after years battling mental illness. One never really gets over something like that, Elmer said. It helps that his other daughter and her family are local, and very much part of Elmer and Marilyn’s lives.
The couple moved fairly recently to the Greenspring Retirement Community, and they also shifted church memberships.
They are newly ordained deacons at Burke Presbyterian: Accepting, loving, listening—these are things the Klumpps know how to do.
“You don’t really know what the hand of God is going to bring to you,” Elmer said.