When John Eusebio Klingemann speaks to young students, he stresses that with persistence and hard work they can overcome any obstacle. After all, he did.
Growing up on the Rio Grande and in the Big Bend region, Klingemann came from an area that was culturally rich but economically poor and definitely lacking in college role models. Those who left the border for college seldom returned. The options for employment were limited, often to manual labor or ranch work.
Just getting a high school education was difficult for the youth of Terlingua, Klingemann’s hometown during his teen years, because it required a 160-mile round trip by bus to Alpine High School every school day.
But with a strong push from his parents, especially his mother, and some encouragement from key teachers, Klingemann would go on to get a doctorate in history and join the Angelo State University faculty as an assistant professor of history.
“The obstacles were there,” Klingemann recalled, “just for us to go to high school, much less go on to college.”
It is not that his childhood was terrible because he retains fond memories of growing up along the Rio Grande, but rather the excitement and adventure of youth had few comparable opportunities for adults.
“Growing up in the small town of Terlingua certainly gave me a different view of life to where I understood diversity and multiculturalism.”
He lived his early years until second grade in Presidio, a short distance from the Rio Grande.
“We looked at our border in a quite different way,” Klingemann said. “It was a trans-bordered culture because my grandmother lived in Ojinaga, which was immediately across the river. So, we would often go visit my grandmother and stay the night.”
While his mother was a Mexican citizen, his father’s family were of German descent from the Texas Hill Country, further broadening Klingemann’s cultural awareness.
“That in itself was quite an obstacle for my parents,” Klingemann recalled, “because there were disadvantages of interracial marriage along the border. So, I grew up in a household where we came together, understanding diversity and understanding differences between cultures, ethnicities and races.”
For many years, his father worked jobs oriented toward manual labor and instilled in the young Klingemann hard lessons about perseverance, determination and hard work. Some of the most decent individuals Klingemann ever met were laborers, and a conversation with one of those workers still echoes in his mind. A crew member was changing parts beneath a major piece of equipment late on a hot summer night.
“He was just dripping in sweat, working under this piece of machinery when he stopped and looked up at me. He said, ‘You better go to school, John,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ He answered, “So, you’re not 55 like me and still doing this kind of work.’”
In the second grade, Klingemann moved with his family to Alpine where he lived and went to school until eighth grade when his father’s work took them to Terlingua, a place “that to this day remains in my heart and that I will never forget,” even though the family lived in a trailer and he slept on the couch because they lacked enough bedrooms for him in addition to his parents and sisters.
“Growing up,” Klingemann recalled, “my friends and I would swim across the Rio Grande, go to their ranches, feed their horses and swim back across the river. I had a lot of friends that I went to school with that grew up on this ranch where their families had lived for generations. A lot of my friends and I just didn’t think that we had opportunities beyond that. In our community, the role models were few who had gone on to receive their education and come back to make a difference in the community. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I wanted so badly to come back to Texas after I completed my doctorate.”
When he started high school, he had no idea his educational path would lead to a doctorate. In fact, his first day at Alpine High was an overwhelming if not terrifying experience because of the class bell.
“We didn’t even have a bell in Terlingua,” Klingemann remembered, “so when the bell rang and I saw people running to and from their classrooms, I was like ‘What in the world was that?’”
Klingemann adapted to high school, even though he had to be on the school bus by 5:30 a.m. and he did not get back home until 7:30 p.m. each day. He spent about four hours a day in transit.
“Actually, the ride served to further educate me because when you’re on a bus for two hours each way, there’s not a lot of things to do,” he said. “Among the things I did on the bus, I actually read a lot of books. So, by the time that I entered college, I was actually ahead of most freshman and sophomores because I had read quite a bit of the material. I took advantage of being on the bus.”
Because he wanted an academic seal on his high school diploma, he took the academic route rather than the industrial arts route and graduated, thinking he was through with his education, until the very day of registration at Sul Ross State University.
“My mother woke me up and said, ‘Registration is today. Let’s go. I’m driving you to Alpine.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to go to college at all.’ And, she said, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to work for your father in road construction.’ I answered, ‘I’ll be ready in 30 minutes.’”
“So, we drove all the way to Alpine, and to this day I’m amazed at what my mother did,” Klingemann said. “She cleared out her bank account so that I could enroll at Sul Ross. My first year, I struggled making the transition to the university setting. After that, I developed my skills because I wanted that degree.”
His Bachelor of Arts would be the first of his three degrees, following it with a Master of Arts from Sul Ross and a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, one of the top five programs nationally in Latin American history, his specialty. While at the University of Arizona, he earned a Fulbright-García Robles Fellowship for Mexico, one of only 16 given nationwide for the 2006–07 academic year. He joined the ASU faculty in 2007.
“Growing up in the small town of Terlingua certainly gave me a different view of life to where I understood diversity and multiculturalism,” Klingemann said. “You learn to appreciate things in life, such as having a bed and a room of your own. And, you learn to appreciate what a difference an education can make in your life.”