On a sunny July morning, sitting in a coffee shop speaking with a reporter, Sheila Klinker was continually met with interruptions of “Hello!” and “Do you have a minute?”. Such bombardments are nothing out of the ordinary for the 80-year-old state representative.
She’s a familiar face in the Tippecanoe County community and a long time local of the Greater Lafayette area, with a reputation for being seemingly ubiquitous.
After about 35 years of teaching, feeling as though teachers needed a louder voice, Klinker decided to enter the world of politics.
“I do it because of the teachers,” Klinker said. “I don’t think they’ve been treated correctly yet. We’re losing people in our industry and our profession, and I hate it.”
In 1981, with three children and supportive husband Victor Klinker, she decided to run for state representative for the Greater Lafayette area.
“I didn’t expect to win but I went door to door a lot and teachers helped me go door to door every night,” she said.
But she was elected, and now serving her 37th year.
With a specific interest in education and special education, Klinker said she has strongly advocated those interests at the Statehouse.
Klinker advocated for the rights of children and families and helped pass the Guardian Ad Litem/CASA law, which requires that children are appointed a guardian ad litem or a Court Appointed Special Advocate in abuse or neglect cases. Klinker said she considers the law to be one of her best accomplishments.
At the beginning, the program was granted $800,000 but is now appropriated millions of dollars, she said.
“It’s made a big difference in getting kids a good start,” Klinker said.
James Greenan, a professor and chair in the College of Education, has worked with Klinker at state wide workshops to improve career and technical education for youth and adults in the state.
“She always shows up and makes a major contribution, and oftentimes she will take what people share with her and take it down to the courthouse and use that information to advocate for children and youth in our communities,” Greenan said.
Klinker also pushed for First Steps, a program which gives infants from ages zero to 2 with disabilities or delays the services they need, Klinker said. She has also been advocating for children from ages 3 to 5 to receive these services.
Arguably Klinker’s biggest contributions have been to her community. She shows a clear dedication to Tippecanoe County, said Brandt Hershman, a former Republican state senator and now Washington D.C. based lawyer.
Although she struggled to pass any sweeping policies, Hershman said, she holds a clear dedication to the system, and together, “we were able to work on a number of tough issues in a bipartisan way, which is to her credit.”
Every Monday morning, before heading to Indianapolis, Klinker goes to Lafayette Harrison Kiwanis and then to Miller Elementary, where she volunteers in the Read to Succeed program.
Klinker has been a volunteer for Read to Succeed ever since the program was first piloted, according to Julie Sommers, the teacher of the classroom Klinker volunteers at.
“Relationships are very important to (Klinker) and you can see that when she works with children,” Sommers said. “She really cares about them and wants to know about them and asks them how they are each morning. And I’ve never had a class that doesn’t adore her.”
She rarely misses Monday morning, Sommer said, and when she does, it’s for her representative responsibilities.
From Purduette to state rep
Klinker, a Purdue alum and lifelong Hoosier who grew up in Indianapolis, came to Lafayette at 18 years old and hasn’t left since.
After spending two years at Butler University, she made her way to Purdue University. Her love for singing earned her a position as a Purduette where she continued to develop her passion.
She majored in elementary education just as the program was beginning at Purdue and when most classes were later at night, she said. With her days open, Klinker worked at WBAA and continued her singing career.
Klinker’s list of extracurriculars was extensive. She joined the Phi Kappa Theta sorority and is now on the honorary mortarboard. As a Theta, she was named a “Gold Pepper,” an honorary title that has since died out within the house, where she would wear a golden beanie with a pepper on it.
“Jan Pearlman came to my door at 7 in the morning and said, ‘You’re a Gold Pepper!’ But it was an honorary Gold Pepper,” she said.
During her time in college, Klinker was also asked to interview to compete for the title of Miss Purdue, a scholarship pageant and an official preliminary to the Miss Indiana and Miss America programs. Hesitant to interview at first, she was told that while she’d likely win the talent section, she was just too short to win anyways, according to Klinker.
And so she became Miss Purdue.
She placed as runner-up in the Miss Indiana competition, playing baritone and singing “Calypso,” “Jamaica Farewell” and “Yellow Bird.”
Upon graduation in 1961, she took her first job at Klondike Elementary and shortly after went to teach third grade at Edgelea Elementary School, where her daughter now teaches second grade.
Then, she moved down the road to start the music and arts program at Miami Elementary, while also teaching English and coaching multiple sports. She continued to do so for 25 years, Klinker said. As the school system changed, and sixth grade was moved to middle school, Klinker eventually taught for about 10 more years at Tecumseh Middle School.
“She never forgets her students,” said Kathy Collie, an administrative assistant at Miami Elementary.
Collie worked with Klinker when she was a teacher at Miami. Her children, now 49 and 45, know Klinker as both a teacher and a coach.
“My kids had her and thought she was the best English teacher ever,” Collie said. “She never forgets a face.”
Wacky attire, tireless nature
Klinker has a special reputation in the Greater Lafayette community, almost a superpower, of being at every event, no matter the day or time.
“So, I met her differently,” said Erin Phillips, the assistant principal at Miami Elementary. “I used to be the principal of a special needs school here ... and a lot of people didn’t even know at the time that we existed. We made a new school on the property, and we did a community open house, and it was a very small (attendance), but guess who was there?”
Not only was she there, Phillips said, but she shared stories of her sister, who has special needs as well.
“And she hugged every single employee, she thanked them for what they did, and everybody was just floored,” she said. “Like, it was so nice to be recognized.”
“She’s like the Energizer bunny,” Collie said. “She’s at every ribbon cutting in this town and West Lafayette.”
Anyone familiar with Klinker, it seems, knows of her energy — and her appearance.
“First time I ever saw high-top Converse wedges was Mrs. Klinker. And I think there was even a day we did something here at school and I believe she had roller skates on for a little while,” Collie said.
But her energy and constant attendance at community events continues to impress on just three to four hours of sleep a night, Klinker said.
“What has impressed me and impresses everyone so much is the energy that she has and the energy that she sustains to do the work that she always does and continues to do,” Greenan said. “And I can say with great confidence that she’s never failed to show up to an event. She is always there.”
Her time as a representative will eventually come to an end. The plan, Klinker said, is to serve one more term. And as more women have entered political positions in Indiana, Klinker hopes to be not just a leader, but a mentor.
“I certainly try to help them get to know the system and so on,” she said. “I think they view me that way and I hope I am.”
On her weekends, Klinker continues to serve.
“I meet with people on the weekend and talk to them, but they call me at home all the time,” she said.
Still to this day, Klinker returns to Miami Elementary. She attends retirement parties of former co-workers and gives them a plaque of recognition from Indiana, Collie said. She interacts with the kids and reads for them during special events, such as Dr. Seuss Day or during the Veterans Day program.
“She’ll come into the school on Oct. 30 and she has a witch’s hat on with her fancy outfit,” Phillips said. “And then you’ll turn around and she’s got the flag outfit for Memorial Day.”
As the community basks in what will be Klinker’s last few years as representative, her constant accessibility to her community has been a highlight.
“She cares about people so much that she wants that leadership for people ... her platform is education, special needs and individuals with disabilities,” Phillips said. “There’s been people in this community that I’ve worked with, young adults that have disabilities, and no joke, they will say, ‘If I can’t figure something out, I can call Sheila.’
“I’ve never met anyone like her.”