WAUKON — In his younger years, Gene Klinge survived an automobile crash that killed two others.
Later, he endured triple bypass surgery on his heart, plus prostate cancer, lymphoma and skin cancer.
“He used up his nine lives, to say the least,” his daughter, Vicki (Klinge) Born said Wednesday. “It’s amazing, all the things he has battled.”
The winningest girls’ basketball coach in state history, Klinge died Wednesday afternoon at Veterans Memorial Hospital of complications from an infection.
He was 82.
Arrangements are pending. The family is hopeful that a memorial service will be held soon in the Maynard gymnasium that bears his name.
Klinge is survived by his wife, Pat, to whom he was married 54 years, as well as four children (Kathy, Vicki, Kevin and Karen) and seven grandchildren.
In 52 seasons — 41 at West Central, 11 at Waukon — Klinge compiled a record of 1,009-252. The run featured 16 state-tournament appearances, highlighted by a Class 3A championship at Waukon in 2004.
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Klinge’s win total ranks 10th all-time nationally, according to the National Federation of High Schools record book.
“It was a life well-lived,” Vicki said. “Once we get over the sadness, we’ll celebrate him. But right now, sadness is winning out.”
Mary Halvorson, Waukon Class of 2010, said Klinge “had a tough exterior, but he had a soft side, too. He meant a lot to a lot of people.
“We had our battles, a lot of tough love, but because of him, I grew a lot as a player. He was a grumpy dude, he pushed us hard and we didn’t enjoy it at the time, but as time passes, you appreciate him a lot more.”
Klinge became ill in October, and never fully recovered.
“The doctors at Mayo (Hospital in Rochester, Minn.) thought we was never going to leave there alive, but the tough old German said, ‘Don’t worry, I got this,’” Vicki said. “And he was well enough that he was able to come back to Waukon for a few weeks.”
Klinge was a native of Monona (he graduated from MFL High School in 1955), and several of his milestones came at the expense of his alma mater.
His first win at West Central came against MFL, 56-45, on Nov. 16, 1962. His 939th victory — the one that made him the state’s all-time leader — was against MFL MarMac at the U.S. Cellular Center.
“The man (Bob Mullen) whose record I broke, he was a true gentleman,” Klinge said afterward. “He taught me a lot about being a gracious winner and a gracious loser.”
And win No. 1,000 came against MFL MarMac, 88-60, on a bitterly cold night in Waukon on Jan. 31, 2013.
After high school, Klinge enrolled at Luther College. Two days before his sophomore year was to begin, he was involved in a car accident. Two people were killed, and Klinge suffered a broken collarbone and broken femur.
Upon his recovery, he worked at his parents’ locker plant back home, than transferred to Upper Iowa University, where he played baseball and football.
He was hired at West Central in the fall of 1962 as a teacher and assistant football coach, then took the girls’ basketball job.
“I inherited a lot of nice players and we got off to a good start,” he said.
Klinge took 12 West Central teams to state, then resigned in April 2003.
“It’s time to give the baton to someone else (at West Central) and let them run with it,” Klinge said at the time. “I loved it here, but everything must come to an end.”
The next day, Waukon announced his hiring.
The seed for his move was sewn by Waukon guard Samantha Reiser, who was a waitress at the Old Rossville Store near Waukon.
“I knew him from a lot of the camps he has run. He asked if we had found a coach,” Reiser said. “I said, 'No, Would you be interested?’”
Upon the news, Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union information secretary Mike Henderson said, “Gene stays young because of the kids. The kids at Waukon might think they’re getting an old man. They’re in for an experience.”
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Waukon went 28-0 in 2004, culminating the run with a 71-46 rout of Charles City in the 3A championship game.
“To work at something as long as I have, and to be able to finally accomplish this ... I just don’t know what to say,” he said afterward.
The Indians won their first 24 games the following season before being upset by MOC-Floyd Valley in the state quarterfinals, ending a 52-game winning streak. They returned to state in 2009 and 2010, with the latter team reaching the state finals.
Klinge coached one more season after hitting the 1,000-win milestone. The Indians were 8-12 in 2013-14 (only his third losing season in 52 years), and his contract was not renewed.
“You can’t do something for more than 50 years and not miss it when you’re done,” he said a year later. “I miss going to practice. I miss the kids. But it is what it is, and I guess you’ve just got to suck it up and get on with it.”
After his coaching career ended, he spent most of his time with Pat, playing euchre tournaments in Lansing and fishing for walleye.
“I’m living the good life, man,” he said.
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