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Jean Klock Park

The city of Benton Harbor is deeply divided over the future of Jean Klock Park. And like many things in America, this is, not far below the surface, a story about race and class, and history.

Yet there is also an element of Victorian romance here. My guess is that most of the people fighting over the issue don’t know much about the man behind it.

John Nellis Klock lived a classic Horatio Alger story. He was born in upstate New York the year the Civil War ended, into a family so poor he had to go to work full-time as a typesetter at age eleven.

But he was driven. When he was 22 he founded his own newspaper, built it up, sold it, and moved to Benton Harbor, a little town in Michigan‘s southwest corner. There he bought two newspapers, combined them, and became rich.

He married a local girl named Carrie, and the two lived happily ever after. Except for one great tragedy.

They had one child, a daughter named Jean, who died when she was still a baby.

The Klocks never got over their loss. By 1917, the boy who was once poor could buy anything he wanted. But he had a sense of perspective. He devoted himself to philanthropy.

“There is little joy in piling up money that one does not need,” he said. John and Carrie bought ninety acres of prime property on the Lake Michigan shoreline, land that would be near-priceless today.

The month after America entered World War I, they donated this land in memory of their daughter, saying the park “shall forever be used for bathing beach, park purposes, other public purposes, and all time shall be open for the use and benefit of the public.”

The grateful city named the park after the lost little girl. Benton Harbor was bustling place back then, important enough for Jack Dempsey to successfully defend his heavyweight championship here in 1920. But recent years have been hard.

The affluent white people have moved to nearby St. Joseph. Today, Benton Harbor is the poorest city in Michigan, a place of boarded up storefronts. John Klock’s Benton Harbor was 97 percent white. Today’s city is 95 percent black.

There are those who say the Harbor Shores development is Benton Harbor’s last best hope. They say it will boost the local economy. That rich people will come to play golf and frolic on the beach, and their dollars will trickle down to benefit the poor.

Maybe, but I doubt it. What I do know is that the property belonged to John Nellis Klock, who died seventy years ago this month. If he had wanted it to be a golf course, he would have said so.

He once had been a very poor kid, who had never been able to take his only daughter to the beach. He wanted to make it possible for other poor kids to do what he couldn’t. I think there is little doubt as to what the park’s future should be.

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