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Ralph Klein, Harford businessman and philanthropist, dies at 88

Harford County businessman and philanthropist Ralph L. Klein died Saturday, Nov. 22, at age 88.
Harford County businessman and philanthropist Ralph L. Klein died Saturday, Nov. 22, at age 88. (Klein Family photo / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Ralph Lincoln Klein, founder of the nine-store Klein's ShopRite of Maryland supermarket chain and a major philanthropist in his native Harford County, died Saturday, Nov. 22, at the Hooper House Hospice in Forest Hill. He was 88.

The cause of death was complications from heart and kidney disease, a family spokesperson said.

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Mr. Klein, who lived in Forest Hill, had stopped actively working at his family's Harford County supermarkets a few years ago, but he and his wife, Shirley S. Klein, remained active in local philanthropy, particularly in their support of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, where the Klein Ambulatory Care Center on the campus is named in their honor.

Although he was one of the most successful business people in Harford County history, Mr. Klein lived modestly and never strayed far from his roots. He was an ardent conversationalist and never lacking for an opinion on any subject.

"Through many untold acts of kindness, he earned a reputation for frequently helping others in need, particularly local families or employees who underwent personal tragedies or difficult financial circumstances," his family said in a statement.

The retail grocery juggernaut Mr. Klein started, and which his sons and grandchildren continue to operate, have made the words "going to Klein's" synonymous with food shopping for four generations of Harford County residents.

"I would say that Ralph Klein has forgotten more about consumer retailing than most of us have ever known," said William A. Clark, owner of Clark Sales & Service, a Darlington hardware and building supply company.

"He was a character for sure, but he and the family have done so much for this county it is hard to describe," Clark added. "Sadly, many people don't even know anything about it."

Mr. Klein shunned the limelight, but those who knew him well were aware he had a keen sense of humor. Some years ago, one of his sons recalled, the Harford County Council wanted to name him a Harford Living Treasure. He politely declined, explaining that those who had previously received the honortypically died shortly thereafter.

Mr. Klein, the only child of Maurice and Sarah Klein, was born in Fallston on July 29, 1926. His parents operated a general store in Fallston that served the rural farming community, and their child was born on the second floor where the couple lived over the store, Mr. Klein recalled some years ago.

"I think we bought the whole town for $500," he said with a wink.

He rode the old Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, whose tracks ran along side the family's store, from Fallston to Bel Air every day to attend high school and graduated from Bel Air High School in 1943.

Following graduation, he attended St. John's College in Annapolis for two years before being drafted in 1945 to serve in the Army. He completed basic training in upstate New York, before deploying in April 1945 to Europe.

Following the surrender of Nazi Germany, Mr. Klein remained in the occupation forces, rising to the rank of technical sergeant. He was honorably discharged from the Army in 1947 and enrolled under the GI Bill at the University of Maryland to complete his college studies.

While at Maryland, Mr. Klein pledged the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity, where he forged many lifelong friendships with the brothers, among them future Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, Samuel Lefrak, "Speedy" Kushner, "Billy" Lewis and "Freddie" Sapperstein.

He graduated from Maryland's College Park campus in 1949 with a bachelor of science in business administration, and returned to Harford County, where he joined with his father to form "Maurice Klein and Son," a general retail company.

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Their company purchased the assets of another local retailer, Eli Tucker, in Forest Hill, at the corner of Rocks and Jarrettsville roads where, trading as "Klein's," the company become locally famous for selling "100,001 things under one roof," and for the large block-lettered "KLEIN'S" painted on the store's expansive slate roof.

The company sold perishable groceries, dry goods, feed, fertilizer, hardware and farm equipment, coal stoves, linoleum flooring, farm and western wear, rifles and ammunition and thousands of other hard-to-find items from a complex of buildings and warehouses in Forest Hill.

For many people settling in the growing northern Harford County area of the 1960s and 1970s, Klein's became the place to stop and get what they needed, often with some helpful advice or an explanation of the local customs dispensed by Mr. Klein or members of his courteous staff.

The Forest Hill building was expanded three times until the business relocated a mile south to its present location in 1978, where Mr. Klein developed the first of what would be several retail areas in Harford County anchored by his family's supermarkets.

In 1952, a customer at his future mother-in-law's beauty shop on Saratoga Street in Baltimore suggested that Mr. Klein meet the proprietor's daughter, Shirley Snyderman. Ralph Klein and Shirley Snyderman were wed on Jan. 4, 1953, and raised three sons, Andrew P. Klein, Michael J. Klein and Howard S. Klein, all of whom subsequently became full partners with their parents in the family enterprise.

"My dad was the real thing who always kept the community values close," Andrew Klein said Sunday. "He was a straight shooter. He had keen instincts and if he said he would do something, he kept his word – no double talk. He will be missed."

"He brought a lot of joy into my life and those of my brothers and our wives and children," the son continued. "He also kept us on our toes all the time."

"He accomplished a lot in life, and he could look back on what he did with pride," Andrew Klein said. "I believe he changed the county for the better. His vision was for the county to be a good place to live, shop, have good medical care. He accomplished those goals."

The company expanded from one store in Forest Hill to six supermarkets in Harford County, two supermarkets in Baltimore County and one supermarket in Baltimore City. In March 2009 the company joined the Wakefern Food Corporation cooperative and began trading as Klein's ShopRite of Maryland.

"After completing his service, like in the Army, he simply returned to 'active duty' as a citizen of Harford County," Michael Klein said. "That's what Dad loved the most and took great pride in – how much his Harford County home changed, from his Fallston rural roots to the thriving modern community it has become and continues to grow into today."

Michael Klein called his father "steadfast and tenacious" both in business and in his desire to help his county.

Some years ago, when the Colonial Pipeline Company wanted to expand its storage facility in the Forest Hill community where he lived, Mr. Klein suggested to the company's lawyers that the community would be more supportive if Colonial would aid in the construction of a fire substation, for which Mr. Klein pledged to donate land.

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The offer was rebuffed, and the Kleins and their neighbors engaged the pipeline company in a protracted zoning and approval battle.

"That was definitely part of the discussion," recalled Michael Leaf, a Bel Air lawyer who has represented the family in zoning matters for many years. "Ralph felt the safety of the community needed to be protected, and building a substation for the Bel Air Fire Company in Forest Hill would help address those concerns."

The fight with Colonial consumed several years and while the company eventually prevailed at a cost of untold dollars in legal costs, the fire station also was built with private and county government contributions on the site Mr. Klein donated, his sons noted.

"Physical confrontation wasn't in my dad's DNA, but that mental combativeness, the ability to confront adversity without publicly being rattled was unparalleled locally," Michael Klein said.

Outside of his business endeavors, Mr. Klein was active in local politics, running unsuccessfully for a seat on Harford County's first County Council, and later serving for more than a decade on the Harford County Democratic Central Committee.

As someone who had contact with many rural voters, Mr. Klein's support was sought by many candidates, and he was frequently visited by many who aspired to elected office both in Harford County and statewide. He was a leading figure in the successful battle to repeal Maryland's "blue laws," which prohibited retail sales on Sunday, and was awarded a ceremonial signing pen for his efforts.

Mr. Klein served for more than two decades as a director of Forest Hill State Bank, and led the bank through its merger with Mercantile Bancorp, which has since become part of PNC Bank. He principally focused on providing start-up loans for medical service, agricultural and other local business ventures. He retired from the board of directors in 1997, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Aside from business ventures and local politics, Mr. Klein and his wife were dedicated to the cause of improving the quality of health care in Harford County.

They encouraged physicians to open their practices in Harford County, and developed an office park near their store in Forest Hill with four medical professional buildings and an assisted living facility.

The couple was among the leading proponents and supporters of the $10 million capital campaign to underwrite construction of the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center campus that opened in on Route 24 in Bel Air in 2000.

The hospital, now associated with the University of Maryland Medical System, received several leadership gifts from the couple, whose names grace the hospital's main lobby, in addition to the facade of the Klein Ambulatory Care Center. The Kleins also gifted property to construct the hospital's Sen. Robert Hooper Hospice.

In addition his land donation for the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company's Forest Hill substation, Mr. Klein also provided construction funding for the Harford Equestrian Center's observation tower.

"My father had his contradictions, and one of them was he hated to go to the doctor, but he also knew we should have better medical care in Harford County and worked hard to see that it happened," Andrew Klein said.

In keeping with his father's legacy, the son said, "My family will continue to strive toward making the communities in which we serve a better place."

Mr. Klein was a founding member of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace and a lifelong congregant of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. He was also a lifelong supporter of the Jewish National Fund, B'nai B'rith International and Israel Bonds.

He had particular passion for restoring local farmhouses and barns and enjoyed frequent visits with small herds of cattle that he named for his favorite persons and fed with items from his bakeries. He also enjoyed speaking on a daily basis with many local friends and customers and held extensive "question and answer" sessions with various supermarket administrators and members of his family.

In addition to his wife of 62 years and their three sons, Mr. Klein is survived by three daughters-in-law, Jayne, Clara and Susan Klein, and by eight grandchildren, Marshall, Samuel, Sarah, Jacob, Rachel, Stephen, David and Victoria Klein.

Services were Monday, Nov. 24, in Pikesville. Mr. Klein was buried in Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery.

Contributions in Mr. Klein's memory may be sent to Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation, 520 Upper Chesapeake Drive, Suite 405, Bel Air, Md. 21014 ; to Temple Adas Shalom, 8 N. Earlton Road, Havre de Grace, Md. 21078; or to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Torah Restoration Fund, 7401 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore, Md., 21208.

"For a poor kid from Fallston, Dad did OK, even if he would never say so publicly or privately," Michael Klein said. "Some may have interpreted that dad could never have enough [inferring money.] In fact, Dad could never have enough, meaning life and improving the life of others whom he impacted.We are proud and to say he was our founder, father and friend to so many."

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.

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