CANTON —Dick Kempthorn’s simple office at his family’s auto dealerships on Cleveland Avenue NW, has been spared from a tornado of ongoing renovation work surrounding it.

“It’s the museum,” his son, Eric, said.

The room is essentially sealed in time and will remain so following Kempthorn’s death Friday night at age 92.

It contains the same desk on the blue-and-white tiled floor where Kempthorn worked on deals; the same old bag of golf clubs, just in case he needed to show a customer they’d fit inside a car trunk; a coat tree, where two of his suit jackets still hang; framed football photos from the University of Michigan, where he was an All-American player; a pair of aircraft models, like those he flew in the Korean War; and a wall map he used to calculate flight routes and distance for flying his private plane.

Keeping the office intact, as a tribute, made sense.

It’s a reminder of a life well-lived.

“His story is just so amazing,” Eric said.

Although it was a Plymouth-Dodge dealership when Kempthorn took over from his father, James, Kempthorn Motors grew through the years. Today, it sells and services new Mazda, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Jaguar brands, as well as used autos.

“This guy made sure that his dealership stayed in town,” said longtime Canton City Councilman Bill Smuckler. “When everyone else was leaving, he remained. He believed in the community.”

Despite being retired, Kempthorn still came to work four days a week. He was in the office as recently as about a month ago, mostly to visit and to meet and greet friends and strangers.

“When everyone heard he was in the building, they lined up to talk to him,” Eric said. “They were sharing stories, having a good time ... a few of them wanted his autograph.”

Dick Kempthorn might be best known for the auto dealerships that carry his family’s name, but his biography checks every box for a prototypical American success story.

His grandfather worked in coal mines. His father founded the auto dealership in the 1930s, then sold it to Kempthorn in 1965. Kempthorn, in turn, passed it onto his two sons, Eric and Jim, and daughter, Dana Parker. Along the way, he was a football star at McKinley High and Michigan, then passed on a pro football career. He served in the military during World War II and in Korea. He was a dogged community supporter, volunteering on boards for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Akron-Canton Airport and taking up causes on behalf of children, including education and the Boy Scouts.

Pro Football Hall of Fame President and Chief Executive David Baker released a statement, praising Kempthorn’s role in the growth of the Hall. While saddened by his passing, Baker said Kempthorn’s life of character and courage should be celebrated.

“Dick embodied the Hall’s core values of commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence ... We have lost a true legend but are thankful to have known and been inspired by his (indomitable) and ever-positive spirit,” the statement said in part.

In his prime, with sandy-brown hair, chiseled facial bones and a strapping physique on his 6-foot-1 frame, Kempthorn possessed massive, strong hands. But he never spent a day in the weight room; he said it was all from pushups and chin-ups.

“He was a mentor, a rock,” said Stark County native Dan Dierdorf, a sportscaster and former St. Louis Cardinals offensive lineman elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996. “He was a fascinating man. He had a work ethic that translated into everyday life.”

Dierdorf met Kempthorn in 1966 as a senior at Glenwood High. Over dinner, Kempthorn convinced the budding star he should play football for the Wolverines in Michigan.

“He was Michigan through and through,” Dierdorf said.

Kempthorn had been a star linebacker at Michigan, playing on unbeaten 1947 and 1948 teams, and the 1949 squad. Nicknamed “Killer,” he was so physical on the field he was held out of practices at one point because the coach feared he would injure too many teammates.

“He’s a legend in Ann Arbor,” Dierdorf said.

Dierdorf and Kempthorn remained close. Dierdorf even worked at the dealership following his first NFL season. The two spoke on the phone and saw each other regularly for 50-plus years.

Roger Bettis visited his longtime friend, Kempthorn, in recent days. When Bettis awoke Saturday morning, knowing his friend had passed away the night before, he drove to the dealership because it just seemed like the right thing to do.

He hugged Kempthorn’s daughter. Bettis said he knew he would find her and her brother, Jim, working as usual, because of the work ethic their father had taught them.

“I’m going to make every effort to continue his legacy,” said Bettis, a former Minerva High star quarterback and University of Michigan player who owns Green Lines Transportation in Malvern.

Bettis, 63, served alongside Kempthorn on the Pro Football Hall of Fame board. For a brief time, around 2006 while in the midst of a divorce, Bettis lived in Kempthorn’s guest house.

“He was like a second father to me,” Bettis said.

He said Kempthorn taught him valuable life lessons about perseverance and reaching goals and objectives.

“If he was on your team, you were going to be successful,” Bettis said.

Bettis can recall vividly a Christmas Eve phone call from Kempthorn 10 years ago. Kempthorn asked if Green Lines had job openings — for someone Kempthorn was trying to get back on track.

“That was the kind of person he was,” Bettis said. “He was always thinking of other people. He liked to help, to make things happen, but he never wanted to be in the spotlight.”

Kempthorn graduated from McKinley in 1944. After a brief stay at Miami University, he enlisted in the Naval Reserves and served in the Merchant Marines during World War II. Then, following his standout grid career at the University of Michigan, he embarked on a military stint as an Air Force pilot during the Korean War.

Kempthorn flew 101 missions. He piloted single-seat P-51 Mustang fighter-bombers and F-86 Sabre jets. He was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for saving the life of a fellow pilot who had crash-landed on an airstrip.

A newspaper account from Michigan described the act of heroism:

Air Force Lt. Henry Rock, of Brooklyn, was piloting a plane that collided with another after landing at Itazuke Air Base in Japan. The second plane came to rest on top of Rock’s aircraft — when a fire broke out, Rock couldn’t get the hatch opened to escape.

Kempthorn sprinted 200 yards to the scene. He jumped on the wing and ripped loose a canopy of bulletproof glass. As fire crews tried to put out the flames, Rock remained trapped by the plane’s gunsight. Kempthorn took the gunsight off with his bare hands and broke off the metal mounting, enabling Rock to climb out.

“It would ordinarily take a good sledgehammer blow to dislodge that gunsight,” Rock said for the story.

The plane exploded shortly after Rock’s escape.

“He never really took credit for what he did,” his son, Eric, said. “His plane would come back with bullet holes in it, but they always missed hitting him. He told me that he was just lucky ... that he made it out because he happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

After Korea, a pro football career awaited. Kempthorn, however, came back home to Canton to work for his father at the auto dealership. He reflected on that in 2017, when he was named to the Great American Rivalry Series Hall of Fame for his roles during his high school career against archrival Massillon.

A piece by Eric Loughry in the event program details Kempthorn’s choice to forgo a pro career:

When Kempthorn returned home from the war in the spring of 1953, his father was in poor health and wanted him to take over the dealership.

“He was in pain, and he wasn’t going to keep it if I didn’t want to be there,” Kempthorn said.

Kempthorn’s father had some notable competition when it came to hiring him. Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown still wanted Kempthorn on his team and sent assistant coach Dick Gallagher to the Kempthorn’s home. J.O. Kempthorn (his dad) met Gallagher at the door, but not to welcome him.

“He said, ‘He’s not going to play football, and you’re not coming in the house to try to convince him,’” Kempthorn said. “And it was that simple.”

Kempthorn conceded that he would have liked to play professionally, but that was out of the question.

“Well, I wanted to play a couple years,” Kempthorn said. “I really did.”

Kempthorn’s son, Eric, said his dad recently reminded him never to lose sight of the fact customers are gold. They should be taken care of as if they were a family member.

“Dad would always tell me that athletes were a dime a dozen,” Eric said. “He was more about life ... (He) had one rule in life: to treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Lamiell Funeral Home, located just south of the dealerships, is handling funeral arrangements. Besides his children, Kempthorn is survived by his wife of 62 years, Marilyn.

 

Reach Tim at 330-580-8333 or tim.botos@cantonrep.com. On Twitter: @tbotosREP