Helen Klenklen has been at the center of St. Louis U. High for 50 years. She has seen principals, presidents, and colleagues come and go, watched the Backer Memorial be built up and torn down, and noted the subtle changes in the boys that make this school what it is. But with the end of this school year, Klenklen will give up her seat right in the middle of things and retire from her position as registrar.
Klenklen was hired in 1960 by Principal Jerry Sheehan, S.J., as the secretary to the principal. It wasn’t until the late ’60s that she moved to her current role of registrar. For over 40 years, Klenklen has recorded the grades and prepared the transcript of every student who has attended SLUH, having an often unfelt effect on his four years.
Over those 50 years, Klenklen has been called upon to take charge of various odd jobs and crucial tasks around the school. From ordering flowers for the Junior Ring Ceremony to preparing graduating seniors’ diplomas each year, Klenklen’s job has grown.
“The thing about Helen is that she has these jobs that nobody knows they even get done,” said art teacher John Mueller. “A lot of that might not be in her job description, but she’s taken it on to get it done.”
Klenklen assists Mueller in preparing and serving dinner once a month for St. Peter and Paul Shelter for homeless men in south St. Louis where, according to Mueller, she receives warm reception for the desserts she makes and serves.
Klenklen’s list of responsibilities is sprawling. She generally spends a large portion of the fall preparing graduation certificates and the majority of the spring preparing transcripts. Between these overarching responsibilities, Klenklen finds time to prepare awards certificates, order flowers for the funerals of deceased alumni, and record Advanced Placement (AP) scores among other things.
“Bottom line, I think she has, as one woman, done a job that’s at least a two-person job given the stresses and timeframes that are involved,” said French teacher Richard Keefe.
Keefe worked extensively with Klenklen during his time as assistant principal in the 1960s through the‘80s. He explained that whenever he was in doubt about a new policy or proposition, he would solicit the opinion of Klenklen whose experience in administrating predated his.
In fact, Klenklen’s tenure exceeds that of every faculty member but theater teacher Joe Schulte. She has worked for five Jesuit and four lay principals and seen a great deal of change in the way the school is run over the years.
“I really think it’s more serious. I think in general, that people are more aware of the image of the school, maybe because of competition with the other schools,” said Klenklen. “You’re always aware that you’ve got to put your best foot forward, because if you don’t, you miss out.”
As the school has changed, particular moments and eras—good and bad—stand out from the rest.
“The years during the Vietnam War students were very apt to protest inside the building, and there were several times (students) had sit-downs,” said Klenklen. “I think it was very hard for the administration. It was very hard for the students because they didn’t want to go to war, and unless they got into college, and they could get deferred, they were going to be drafted. There was a lot of unrest in this school then.”
Despite a great deal of social and technological change, the students have remained a constant, according to Klenklen.
“The student body I don’t see that big a change. The clothes they wear, the music they listen to and that kind of thing has changed a lot, but from my point of view they’re still very respectful and take academics very seriously,” said Klenklen.
Keefe noted that any time someone as tenured as Klenklen retires, the school loses a great resource for historical memory. Klenklen has witnessed a large portion of SLUH’s modern development and roughly one-fourth of its 200-year history.
She plans to travel in her retirement as well as volunteer in the coming fall, which will be her first outside of the Backer Memorial in a half a century.
“The noise, the energy. It’s a place when you come in the morning, you can feel the energy, the movement. I think that’s what I’ll miss,” said Klenklen.