Early Years (1870-1890)
Her Place in History
Amelia Louise Klehm was born at the height of the Victorian age, fifty years before American women earned the right to vote. Yet never did she expect to be supported by a father or a husband, as was the case with many other Victorian women. Instead, she set ambitious goals for herself, becoming first a nurse and later a country doctor serving the people of her hometown, a little farming community called Niles Center, just north of Chicago.
Klehm entered the University of Illinois Medical School in 1898, just as anti-female hostility reached its peak in the male-dominated medical profession. Determined to succeed, she remained undeterred by such distractions, and had the sweet satisfaction of graduating in 1902. An added pleasure was her father's admiration. Originally dubious about the wisdom of this undertaking, he was so proud of her achievement that he called her "doctor" for the rest of his life.
Father and Role Model
Louise's father, George C. Klehm, inflamed his daughter's determination to succeed. He was the quintessential self-made man, hard-working and persistent since his arrival in America from Germany at age twelve, when he immediately began laying the staircase of his own success with a bricklayer's trowel. Reaching for a higher stair as a young man, he used his trade as a stepping stone to a career in education, but soon realized he would never earn enough to support a family in comfort. Nevertheless, Klehm kept his job until early 1864, when he learned that fellow-immigrant Henry Harms wanted to sell his general store. Then, within a matter of months, he became both a fulltime store owner and a husband to Eliza, Henry Harms' sister.
By 1870, when the Klehms welcomed their fourth child, Amelia Louise, George was a prosperous merchant. He was also town treasurer of Niles Center and a pillar of the proud new St. Peter's United Church of Christ, which he had volunteered to help build. Klehm, in short, was living what later generations would call the American Dream.
It did not last. Three weeks after the Klehms celebrated their fourteenth wedding anniversary, the dream became a nightmare. A bleak note in George's Bible tells the story: "Luise (Elisa) Harms Klehm, wife of George C. Klehm died... of a heart attack on August 26th, 1878, shortly before midnight... She left behind a brokenhearted husband and six children." Brokenhearted or not, George Klehm had six mouths to feed. So it wasn't long before he lifted his chin, found someone to care for his children, and went back to work.
Louise Klehm (or A. Louise, as she preferred) was nine years old when her mother died; her sister Alma, the baby of the family, was a toddler of nearly three. Alma needed a constant watchful eye and big sister Louise was there to provide it; such compassionate vigilance could well have been a major factor when it was time for the elder sister to start thinking about earning a living.