Libby Klemer, 84; built career in academia after tragedy

Dr. Klemer, whose husband died in a car crash in 1972, raised six children and helped expand Mount Wachusett Community College’s scope.
Dr. Klemer, whose husband died in a car crash in 1972, raised six children and helped expand Mount Wachusett Community College’s scope.

Libby Klemer was a born student, said her children, who remember her as a constant reader and learner.

“She was a self-proclaimed bookworm,” said her son Ben of Jacksonville, Fla. “She always took school very seriously — for herself, for her kids, and for everyone else. She was a real advocate for education.”

Dr. Klemer was briefly a high school English teacher before she raised six children, but even then she found time to pursue a master’s in educational psychology.


Then when the family was living in India in the early 1970s, her husband, a school administrator, died in a car accident, leaving her the sole breadwinner and head of household. She rose to the challenge quietly and capably, her children said.

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Dr. Klemer, who finished her graduate studies and worked for many years in college-level teacher training and fund-raising positions, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Feb. 23 in the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst. She was 84.

She had married Donald Klemer in the 1950s while both were undergraduate students at Tufts University. When he took a teaching job in North Attleborough, she finished her degree at Brown University in Providence. Subsequent jobs took the couple to New York, Hawaii, and communities in Massachusetts.

In 1971, Donald Klemer, who had been superintendent of schools in Winchester, became director of the American School in New Delhi.

The family enjoyed its experience in India and Libby Klemer reveled in an expatriate life that included housekeeping and baby-sitting services. Those changes gave her enough time to enroll in graduate level courses and complete her master’s degree.


“We went from being a struggling middle class family to being a family who didn’t have to worry about anything,” her son said. “We were treated really well, along with embassy children from all over the world.”

Everything changed nearly a year after they arrived. Donald Klemer traveled to Massachusetts to bring their oldest child, Beth, to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and also to interview potential teachers for the New Delhi school.

After settling his daughter in her dorm, he was driving to a recruitment appointment in Pennsylvania when his car struck a pole, killing him instantly in June 1972 at age 42.

When her husband died, Dr. Klemer was vacationing in the Himalayas with her three youngest children, including a daughter who was only 4. Her two teenage sons were on a school-sponsored backpacking trip in Europe. “It was a stunning thing for all of us,” Ben said of his father’s death.

Dr. Klemer gathered her children and moved back to the United States. While they were staying at her father’s house in Gloucester, he mentioned a scholarship that was available in the education doctoral program at UMass Amherst that might help her get on her feet.


She applied and was awarded the scholarship. With her children she moved to Amherst and bought a house across from campus, using funds from a small life insurance policy for a down payment. To help pay the mortgage, she and one of her sons converted the house’s basement and an upstairs room into rental units.

When Donald Klemer died, Dr. Klemer was “flummoxed, she didn’t know what to do,” said their daughter Beth of Northampton. “But her decision to move to Amherst was really brilliant. She was able to go to school and get a job at UMass, and she was in a town where the schools were good for my younger brothers and sister.”

In time Dr. Klemer graduated with a doctorate from UMass Amherst and built a long career in academia. She focused mainly on teaching classroom strategies to professors and later moved to Boston, where she held government jobs and became involved in grant writing, her family said.

Among the places she worked was Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, where she raised funds that helped expand the school’s size and scope.

Daniel Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett, said he assessed her abilities when he arrived in 1987 and quickly appointed her his assistant.

“Back then we didn’t have a large fund-raising arm in development of any kind,” he said. “She became the engine behind the effort. She made an enormous impact here, an enormous and positive impact.”

Dr. Klemer secured the school’s first grant, Asquino said, and showed a gift for raising money strategically. “She had a very linear approach. She was sure to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ ” he said. “And she was also very collaborative. She had a lot of respect for faculty and staff, and worked closely with everybody.”

Sharon Finnerty of Albany, N.Y., who wrote grants with Dr. Klemer for years, considered her a mentor. Dr. Klemer “was one of those people who could see potential that others wouldn’t necessarily see, and then do whatever she could to help that person live up to it,” Finnerty said. “She was a wonderful combination of classy, intelligent, funny, and unpretentiously confident, on top of having a kind and caring heart.”

Known throughout her life as Libby, Elizabeth Courant was born and grew up in Gloucester, a daughter of Dr. Reginald Courant, a dentist, and the former Elizabeth Carroll. She loved music, poetry, and socializing, her family said.

“She was always resourceful and practical, and she always had lots of friends,” said her son, who called her “a brilliant conversationalist with an irreverent sense of humor.”

After Donald Klemer died, Dr. Klemer was briefly married, and that marriage ended in divorce. At 74 she married Marcel Meunier, who died in 2013. They especially enjoyed going out dancing, her family said.

A service will be announced for Dr. Klemer, who in addition to her son Ben and daughter Beth leaves three other sons, Paul and Steven, both of Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Mark of New York City; another daughter, Kate of Northampton; two sisters, Marie Powers of Gloucester and Virginia Haywood of Beaufort, N.C.; and three grandchildren.

Beth said that when she and her siblings were young, Dr. Klemer chose one of them each week as a “helper” when she shopped for groceries. Afterward, she took that child to Friendly’s for an ice cream sundae. “It was a little gift for all of us,” Beth said. “My mother felt it was really important not to show favoritism.”

Even when money was tight, Dr. Klemer encouraged her children to pursue hobbies, said Beth, who recalled a time when she “was horse crazy,” and somehow her mother “scraped together enough money for me to take riding lessons.”

“She was always telling us to find a way to do what we really want to do,” Beth added. “And she showed us how.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at