Werner Kleemann: More Than a Sports Legend

  • Long before his name became synonymous with Rush-Henrietta athletics, Werner Kleemann was a child growing up 20 miles north of Manhattan in the village of Hastings-on-Hudson.

    As sports became a bigger part of his life, he sometimes took the train with his father to visit Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium. There, he watched many baseball legends take the field. These experiences provided the foundation for what became a lifelong love affair with sports. As a teenager, Kleemann became an outstanding baseball and football player. He enrolled at Springfield College in Massachusetts and joined its football team. Unfortunately, an injury ended his playing career. Doctors warned that his vision would be at risk if he returned to the field.

    His passion for sports persisted, however, and brought him new opportunities. In 1971, he was hired by Rush-Henrietta as a physical education teacher and assistant varsity football coach. When Paul McKee, a football legend in his own right, stepped down as coach of the football team the following year to become the district’s athletic director, Kleemann took the reins.

    That started one of the most successful football runs in Monroe County history. “The next 16 years would be glorious ones for Kleemann and Rush-Henrietta football,” reporter Scott Pitoniak wrote in a 1999 Democrat and Chronicle story. “His team would go 95-25-4, and win 21 straight from 1981-83.” Pitoniak continued, describing the secret to the program’s incredible success: “There was nothing fancy about Rush-Henrietta football under Kleemann. Taking a page from coaching legend Woody Hayes’ playbook, he kept things pretty basic. He expected precise execution, discipline. He was old school, and his players bought into it.”

    Kleemann, who also served as the district’s athletic director from 1985 until his retirement in 1999, died in 2018 at the age of 76. At the time, Democrat and Chronicle columnist, Leo Roth, gave an apt description of the longtime coach: “Mr. Kleemann had a bear-like stature that commanded a room, but it was tempered by a warm smile and demeanor that brought people together.” That demeanor was much-needed in 2000, when the district asked him to serve as interim principal of the Senior High School after the unexpected death of Christopher Tanski. 
    In 1997, Kleemann became a member of the inaugural class of the Section V Football Hall of Fame. Now 25 years later, his name is still revered.

    “Werner was proud to be a teacher, coach, and administrator at R-H, as well as a long-time resident of Henrietta,” says Dr. Tom Stewart, who succeeded Kleemann as district athletic director. “He touched so many lives throughout his illustrious career. He was not only respected as a Hall of Fame football coach, but as a man with a deep passion for what he believed in. Everyone who met Werner Kleemann learned from him, even if only for a moment, and left as a better person. He had that kind of an impact on people.”

    For Kleemann, his work was always about the students. “Seeing the kids develop was the best part; it’s why you get into this business in the first place, or it should be,” he told the newspaper as he readied to leave the athletic director’s seat in 1999.

    [Post 63] #75Posts75Years

    Click the "i" in the upper left corner of the photos below for more information.

    © Copyright 2022. All rights reserved.

View this Post on Facebook