In 1997, Jack Klinge was a newly retired commuter. Looking for local activities, he discovered the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).
Elected that fall, he has not lost since. Now in his 25th year on Westport’s non-partisan legislative body, the former marketing executive is its longest-serving member.
Of all time.
The first RTM — a change from Westport’s previous “town meeting” government, which was great in theory but unwieldy in a rapidly growing suburb — was elected in 1949. Over 200 candidates vied for 26 seats.
Nearly 3/4 of a century later, competition is less keen. But the RTM — which, among other duties, approves town and education budgets, and any appropriation over $20,000; enacts ordinances, and reviews certain changes to zoning and recreation regulations — remains one of Westport’s most important bodies.
And Klinge is one of its biggest boosters.
His route to the RTM is as typical as anyone’s. He and his wife Jeanne bought a 1780 Cape on Partrick Road when he began working for General Foods in White Plains. In 1974 they moved with their 3 young kids across town, to Sturges Highway. They’ve been there ever since.
The usual amenities — the schools, beaches, Longshore, sports — kept them here. Jeanne got involved in a variety of civic affairs, including the original Levitt Pavilion.
But Jack — who invented stovetop stuffing mix at General Foods, then helped Arm & Hammer’s marketing team put baking soda in every refrigerator, and made his final name as a Topps sports cards marketing director — was less active in town.
He coached Little League baseball and rec basketball. But beyond fighting proposed developments on the Partrick wetlands and what later became Winslow Park, he was “an apolitical commuting father and husband.”
In 1997, his business — Major League Marketing, headquartered on Richmondville Avenue — was bought out. The new owners moved it to Texas. Klinge retired.
Human Services director Barbara Butler suggested he join Westport’s mentor program. A quarter century later, he still helps his first mentee — and his family.
Having taught night classes at Sacred Heart University for 7 years, Klinge joined the Westport Public Schools’ substitute list. He still subs.
But a chance comment from a friend about the RTM piqued his interest in town government. When he heard what it did — and that candidates ran without party affiliation — he was in.
He got a petition signed by 25 District 7 electors (including, he laughs, “5 Klinges”).
Klinge had no time for door-to-door campaigning. But he did fill out a comprehensive questionnaire, for the League of Women Voters guide.
Besides, there were only 4 candidates, for 4 seats. He couldn’t lose.
Moderator Gordon Joseloff assigned Klinge to 3 committees: Education, Finance, and Parks & Recreation. He’s still on them — and others — today.
Klinge has run unopposed, and against a larger field. By now he’s well known. But he takes no chances. He prints flyers, and gains endorsements.
And — always — he listens to constituents. They send emails. They stop him and Jeanne on their walks through the neighborhood. They ask questions (and offer opinions) on the golf course.
Some know a lot about town government. Others are clueless. But an RTM member’s job is to serve them all.
“I love this job,” Klinge says. “The other night, we met until midnight about the Burying Hill groin. I wanted to use ARPA funds. I said, ‘We need to do this now.'” The vote passed.
Klinge enjoys “every meeting and committee session” — some more than others, of course.
Decisions are not made lightly. Proposals like dogs on the beach and tasers for police consume months of committee and full meeting debates. Westport “never lacks for good issues,” the legislator notes.
He is proud of most decisions. Years later though, Klinge regrets that the RTM failed — by 2 votes — to overturn a Planning & Zoning Commission decision regarding senior housing on Baron’s South.
“That shut off all discussion,” he says. “We need housing for older people in Westport, and having it right next to the Senior Center would have been great.
“Now we worry about finding spots for housing all over town. That vote still hurts.”
Now, as head of the RTM Long Range Planning Committee, Klinge is trying to tie ARPA funding in to the 5-year capital forecast. “We need better, quicker decision-making,” he says. “These are the things that keep me up at night.”
They don’t keep every Westporter up, that’s for sure. Many residents — especially newcomers — know very little about the RTM, Klinge says.
Or any other facet of town government.
“Realtors don’t provide ‘RTM 101,'” he says. “I’d have kids learn about how the town works in school. Then they could teach their parents.”
As Westport changes throughout the years, so has the RTM. Fewer seats are contested, and the old civility — “convivial, congenial, lots of laughs” — has eroded somewhat.
The move to virtual meetings has not helped. Klinge misses the days when everyone sat together, in Town Hall.
Still, he says, the RTM remains “non-political. There are liberals and conservatives. But debate is still open to all points of view.”
Klinge notes one other change. Though some newcomers know little about town government, others have stepped up to run for RTM seats.
“It used to be an old boys’ club, with a few women. Now probably half the members are under 50, and we’re about half male, half female.”
He hopes the new members will keep it apolitical, while making sure the body is proactive in confronting important town issues.
And, he insists, “always putting Westport first.”
At 83, Klinge says he still has a great deal to contribute to the RTM. He’ll keep running. “I love serving,” he says. “And I hate losing.”
So far, he is 12 for 12. The end is nowhere in sight.
(Hat tips: Matthew Mandell, Eileen Lavigne Flug, Jeff Dunkerton)
Jack is a mentor and town treasure. His wisdom and pragmatism always shines through. It’s an honor to serve with him and look to him for guidance.
What a great piece on a wonderful guy! I really enjoyed serving in the RTM with Jack. Congrats to him on his long and distinguished service to the town! And so great that he continues substitute teaching.
Jack is a gem! Not many of us Westporters are willing to give up hundreds of hours of our time to serve the people of our town. Jack does and he loves doing it. Kudos Jack! Thank you for all that you do for Westport.
Jack is respected mainstay of the RTM and justifiably so. His service, insight and dedication has made it an honor to serve alongside him. Thank you, Jack, for your continued service and leadership!
Jack Klinge is a gem in our community – we are so fortunate to have him here in town! ‘Loved learning about some of the lesser known aspects of his interesting life and career….
Our sons – years out of college – still remember him as a substitute teacher during their school years. I’d loved to have been a fly on the wall when he was teaching!
Jack Klinge is an amazing and wonderful human being. A great gift to Westport. High school kids know who he is. My grandson was impressed recently when I mentioned Jack’s name and said to me, “you know him?”
Thanks for your service Jack🇺🇸🙏
Very grateful for Jack Klinge’s ongoing service to our town — what a role model for all of us! Many thanks to Matt, Eileen and Jeff for helping us celebrate Jack. He deserves it! As a newbie RTM member, I’m also grateful for the opportunity to work with and learn from Jack during my term these next couple of years.
Thanks to Jack for sharing his good heart, calm demeanor, huge store of knowledge about town history, willingness to listen, advise, and speak out, and now – who knew? – Stovetop Stuffing!
Jack is great to serve with you here what he says it has been great to serve with he remember I use take care of his lawn such a smart man he is always good to call thanks jack for your service to our town of Westport and you being on the rtm
Jack is a wonderful human being! Thank you for all you have done and continue to do for so many people!
Always thoughtful, always involved, always puts what is best for Westport and its citizens first and always a gentleman.
Thank you Jack!
Jack Klinge – the best. So happy to see him recognized for all the good that he does.
“Tis a gift you are dear Jack.
And it should be noted, one of the winningest coaches in Westport Little League history!!
Well deserved recognition.
From my substitute teacher through my entire scholastic career to now my colleague on the RTM. It is really cool how paths with particular great people keep crossing. The best part is learning more about them. A humble family man with passion for his town and uniting everyone together.
Can always count on you to “second” the resolution.
Here’s to many more terms, meetings, and great times Jack!