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Softball enthusiast Rudy Klokkenga lived a life of compassion and generosity

Rudy Klokkenga sits and smiles at a 2021 event
Randy Kindred
Rudy Klokkenga is all smiles in 2021 as he awaits a ceremony to name the Illinois State softball press box the Rudy Klokkenga Press Box.

Any remembrance of Rudy Klokkenga must include softball.

He played it as a young man, becoming a pitching ace in an era when many small towns fielded men’s fastpitch teams. His name is on the Illinois State softball press box, a tribute to Klokkenga’s unwavering love and support of the Redbirds. He has a plaque in the Illinois Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame, recognizing the time, energy and money he invested in the Bloomington Lady Hearts summer team.

A self-proclaimed “country boy,” Klokkenga embraced his Hartsburg-Emden heritage. More than 30 state championship banners hang in the junior high/high school gym, all funded by Klokkenga. Since 1993, every member of a Hartem state championship team has received a personalized plaque in the shape of Illinois, courtesy of Klokkenga.

So yes, his story also must include Hartsburg-Emden.

Rudy Klokkenga's name is displayed in bold letters on the press box at Illinois State's Marian Kneer Stadium
Randy Kindred
Rudy Klokkenga's name is displayed in bold letters on the press box at Illinois State's Marian Kneer Stadium, the home of Redbird softball.

When the 76-year-old Klokkenga died Aug. 11 at his Bloomington home, his love of softball and passion for his Logan County roots were well known. Yet, there was more we never knew – he wanted it that way – and it is within those “unknowns” you find the essence of Rudy Klokkenga.

He revealed them only to those closest to him, if at all. Ron Spencer, a fellow Hartsburg-Emden grad and longtime friend, was in that inner circle.

“He did a lot for people he didn’t even know,” said Spencer, who delivered the eulogy at Klokkenga’s funeral. “During COVID, he paid rent for two single moms who worked for a restaurant that had to close down. He did that anonymously.”

Let that sink in. Only the best among us have that level of empathy and commitment to helping others. It came naturally to Klokkenga.

Here’s more from Spencer:

“Also during COVID, when they started reopening restaurants with curbside service, he left some tips that left the staff in tears because he knew people were going through a very tough time.”

Klokkenga's own tough times

It is worth noting Klokkenga was experiencing tough times as well … not financial, but physical. He battled heart problems after retiring from State Farm Insurance at age 55, at one point spending months in the hospital following surgery.

He also suffered from diabetes and had vision issues. For the past two years, much of his time was spent in his Bloomington condo.

That had to be difficult for a man who relished attending sporting events in Bloomington-Normal, at his beloved Hartsburg or wherever a “big game” was to be played. In recent years, he relied on television and streaming services to bring games to him, most notably Illinois State softball.

Klokkenga would watch internet broadcasts of the Redbirds, and every Friday had a chat with his favorite player.

He called her “The Boss.” It’s how a young Emme Olson referred to herself while running around during games played by her older sister, ISU Hall of Famer Abby Olson. From then on, she was “The Boss” in Klokkenga’s heart and mind.

Their connection ran deep. The Olsons were from Hartsburg-Emden and Klokkenga was a third cousin to their grandmother, Joyce Shirley. When Emme Olson chose Illinois State, their relationship “just kept becoming more regular and just a part of our days,” she said. “It was so natural.”

Rudy Klokkenga receives a congratulatory hug from a woman at a 2021 event
Randy Kindred
Rudy Klokkenga receives a congratulatory hug in 2021 after the Illinois State softball press box was named after him.

“I went over to his house and visited him a few times,” she added. “We would talk on the phone … Friday was our day. We would talk about whatever was going on in my life, whatever was going on in his life. His brother (Ron) and his wife travel a lot. He would always have their travel itineraries and talk about the souvenirs they brought back to him.

“We would talk about what doctors appointments he had coming up and about me and softball and what was going on in school. It was just really anything.”

It meant everything to Klokkenga.

More than once, he politely told close friend and fellow softball lover Rick Jones, “I have to get off the phone because it’s about time for The Boss to call.”

The Rudy Klokkenga Press Box

In 2021, Emme Olson took part in a ceremony that had Klokkenga fighting back tears. She unfurled a banner that revealed the press box at ISU’s Marian Kneer Stadium had been named The Rudy Klokkenga Press Box.

He spent 13 years inside it, serving as public address announcer for Redbird games. He followed and supported the team for many years before that.

“It was very special, not only to see him get that acknowledgement and honor for what he had given to the program, but just to see the smile and happiness on his face to be able to be there,” Emme said.

Her voice cracked. It was emotional thinking about it.

Klokkenga was using a walker on that overcast fall day. His health was declining, but his spirit was strong.

“Thank goodness he got to see his name on the press box,” said longtime ISU softball coach Melinda Fischer, who has since retired. “He was just so proud of that. His generosity to our program was above and beyond. We will never be able to thank him enough.”

Fischer, current head coach Tina Kramos and the entire ISU team attended Klokkenga’s funeral.

“You couldn’t have found a kinder, more generous human being,” Fischer said. “He was just everything. If you asked him to come and help you with anything, he would always do it. And he was such a humble, humble person.”

As such, Klokkenga sought similar personalities to play for the Lady Hearts. A board member of the team for more than 30 years, he teamed with Jones and Lyle Day to build competitive teams with good character.

“We turned down any number of really good players, several of whom came back and beat us on the field,” Jones said. “But Rudy and I would always say, ‘Is she a Heart?’ We wanted good people in that dugout. It’s like anything in life, if you surround yourself with good people, the bad days are a lot easier to handle.”

There were more good days than bad for Klokkenga, also a member of the Illinois State Athletics and Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Halls of Fame. He made the IBCA Hall of Fame as a “Friend of Basketball.” In truth, he was a friend to Central Illinois and beyond.

Spencer, a longtime successful coach, graduated from Hartsburg-Emden in 1989, a generation behind Klokkenga (1965). Still, they shared the same values.

“He was our big brother, definitely a mentor … just a great friend,” Spencer said. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about him. He was blessed and in turn he made sure to bless other people. I’m very thankful he was in my life.”

So is Katie Armitage. She was Katie Newman when she pitched at Normal West High School, Illinois State and for the Lady Hearts.

Klokkenga was a constant in her career. She grew to appreciate his presence, support and, with the Lady Hearts, behind-the-scenes funding of trips to tournaments, including the Canada Cup.

“After a game, he was always waiting with a smile and a high five and would pull you in for a hug,” Armitage said. “You knew you were going to feel good after seeing him.

“We had so many amazing experiences with the Hearts and I know he was a huge part of that. I know I had so many opportunities because of Rudy, and I also know there were so many that I didn’t know were because of him. He just enjoyed supporting people.”

Perhaps John Cross said it best. A longtime friend of Klokkenga, Cross told Spencer, “Rudy took joy out of other peoples’ success.”

“That’s a rarity, in today’s world especially,” Spencer said.


Veteran Bloomington-Normal journalist joined WGLT as a correspondent in 2023. You can reach Randy at rkindred58@gmail.com.