When his first child was born with a learning disability in 1951, a doctor told Robert Klas and his wife that they should put the baby in an institution and focus their attention on the children who would come after.
Robert and Alexandra “Sandy” Klas ignored that advice. Over the next few decades, the pioneering couple broke new ground in raising awareness and money for people with learning disabilities, culminating in the launch of the Tapemark Charity Pro-Am golf tournament in 1972.
After raising just $9,000 at the inaugural event, the Pro-Am became a major success, generating $7.7 million in the past 47 years for nonprofit agencies in Minnesota.
“It was always easy to support Bob’s causes because he was always the first guy in,” said Tom Cody, longtime manager of the tournament and son of co-founder Pat Cody Sr. “I don’t know a more unselfish person. Bob said, ‘Donations are the rent we pay for living on this planet,’ and he lived by that.”
Robert “Bob” C. Klas Sr. died March 8. He was 91.
The second of nine children, Klas grew up in Wabasha, Minn. His father was a railroad worker and money was tight. As teenagers, Bob and his older brother, Dan, began riding the rails during summer recess, earning less than $1 an hour repairing sections of broken track throughout the Midwest.
In 1944, the brothers pooled their money to buy a secondhand popcorn wagon, which became an institution in the Wabasha area, with family members operating the cart through 1984.
“Dad would give out samples of popcorn, and Dan would get irritated,” said Tom Klas, one of Bob’s six children. “He’d say, ‘What are you doing? You’re giving away our profits!’ Dad would say: ‘Just wait. People will come back.’ Which one do you think became the attorney, and which became the businessman?”
Klas’ business savvy came in even handier with his next venture. After graduating with an economics degree from Hamline University in St. Paul, Klas bought a tiny St. Paul company called Tapemark in 1952. He turned it into one of the country’s leading manufacturers of labels, ranging from the Red Owl logo that adorned bananas in the 1950s to shampoo bottles, antiperspirant containers and other consumer products in the 1970s. Tonka Toys was a major client for years.
“Our family never lived extravagantly,” Tom Klas said. “None of us received an allowance. We had to forgo family vacations. … We had to reinvest all of our money into Tapemark to help it grow.”
Tapemark, with 145 employees in West St. Paul, now gets most of its business from pharmaceuticals and medical device makers. One of its more recent hits has been Breathe Right Nasal Strips. Annual revenue is expected to reach $35 million this year.
“All of our products appear in the market under someone else’s name,” said Bob Klas Jr., who now runs Tapemark.
Bob Klas Sr. was generous with his profits. Besides underwriting the annual golf tournament, he and his wife donated $7 million in 2003 to their alma mater, Hamline University, which used the money to build a four-story multipurpose center and athletic field. Bob and Sandy Klas also donated millions of dollars to the hospital in Wabasha.
Klas was a major player in politics, contributing more than $300,000 to Republican candidates and organizations since 1990, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group.
In addition to sons Thomas and Bob Klas Jr., survivors include his wife, Sandy, and daughters Margaret Johnson, Elizabeth Polome and Christine Nelson. Services have been held.