The Blue Bonnet Cafe and John Kemper seemed synonymous on the surface. One was the other, and vice versa. But limiting Kemper to just being the owner of the iconic Marble Falls cafe doesn’t really tell the story of how the man impacted his community.
“I would say John was one of the five most important people in the history of Marble Falls,” said Christian Fletcher, executive director of the Marble Falls Economic Development Corporation and a friend of Kemper’s. “His fingerprints are all over the projects and things that make Marble Falls what it is today.”
Kemper passed away Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the age of 67. According to an obituary from his family, Kemper suffered complications associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Ask anyone who knew Kemper, worked alongside him, or received one of his boyish smiles from behind the counter at the Blue Bonnet Cafe, and you’ll get similar sentiments, most twinged with grief, about his love for the community.
“I met John about 30 years ago, and he was my first mentor here. More than that, he was my friend, a good friend,” Donna Klaeger said.
She moved to the Marble Falls area from San Antonio with husband Robert Klaeger, who had known Kemper since the late ’60s. The two men attended school in Marble Falls; Kemper graduated a few years ahead of Klaeger.
Though Donna Klaeger was new to the area, Kemper didn’t waste any time helping her forge a connection to the community. Klaeger had experience putting together events from her job in San Antonio. Kemper and others turned to her to help them pull off the first Marble Falls LakeFest, a drag boat race, in the early 1990s.
Kemper also was one of the people behind the creation of the Walkway of Lights holiday display as well as being involved in countless other things that made Marble Falls the economic hub of the Highland Lakes and a travel destination.
“He believed in Marble Falls. He loved Marble Falls,” Donna Klaeger said. “He gave and gave and gave to Marble Falls, the businesses, and the people. He guided us and led us, and we get to live in that vision of Marble Falls today because of John.”
Of course, one can’t separate Kemper from the Blue Bonnet Cafe. He and his wife, Belinda, whom he met in the eighth grade and married when they were both 19, purchased the diner in 1981. The couple worked hard to build the restaurant into the famous place it has become. On top of that, they raised two children: Lindsay (Plante) and Celeste (Taylor).
Lindsay and her husband, David, run the Blue Bonnet Cafe’s daily operations.
The Kempers put community service high on their list of importance. In 1989, they began holding the biannual Marble Falls Area EMS Fish Fry. Twice a year — one day in March and one day in October — John and Belinda shut down the Blue Bonnet’s regular operations and menu for about four hours in the evening and fried fish. They served catfish, hush puppies, coleslaw, and all the fixings with proceeds benefiting the Marble Falls Area EMS.
Johnny Campbell, the EMS’ executive director, came to know Kemper after the young paramedic took a job in Marble Falls in 1996. Campbell would stop at the Blue Bonnet Cafe for breakfast at about 7:30 a.m. on his way to work.
The two soon became friends, something Campbell said was quite easy to do with John Kemper.
“He just made you feel good,” he said. “John, he had that smile, and he always was willing to help you. Always.”
The Kempers donated all the ingredients — fish, food, and labor — for the fish fry.
Campbell estimates that, with everything the Kempers supplied and the money raised, those fish fries were easily worth more than $1 million. In November 2013, the Texas Department of State Health Services honored John and Belinda Kemper as EMS Citizens of the Year for the fish fries and their contributions to the Marble Falls Area EMS.
“He was one of those guys you could go to if you needed any help, help with the city, help with the county, any help. He just had those connections, and he was always willing to help,” Campbell said. “He was not only a friend to the EMS and a friend to me but to the whole community.”
Robert Klaeger recalled meeting Kemper in the 1960s. John was close friends with Robert’s older brother, Dale. When the Klaegers moved to San Antonio late in Dale’s senior year, the Kempers let him live with them so he could graduate from Marble Falls High School.
“I think they let him stay in John’s room,” Robert said.
John graduated in 1970 and headed off to the University of Texas. Dale graduated the following year.
And when Kemper needed money to buy his first car, to Robert’s recollection, he turned to the Klaeger boys’ mother.
“She lent it to him. I think it was $800 or $900 for his first car,” Robert said.
And John paid it all back.
Kemper always seemed to be there during some of the rough patches in Robert’s life, such as when Dale died in 2012 and his mother, Carolyn Klaeger, passed away in 2014. After his mother’s death, Robert said the family gathered at a lakehouse in the Marble Falls area, and Kemper showed up. Throughout the evening, Kemper shared story after story about Robert’s mother.
“Gosh, we laughed so hard that night,” Klaeger recalled. “But, you know, that’s just the type of guy John was. He knew how to make you feel good and remember the wonderful things about people.
“I’m going to miss him,” Robert added.
“Everyone was like family to him,” she said. “He was always reinforcing people and helping them see how much they had to offer.”
She went back to those years in the 1990s and early 2000s when she served on the Marble Falls/Lake LBJ Chamber of Commerce, first as a board member and then as the president. She knew she could always count on Kemper for advice and support.
It wasn’t just her. Brenda Morris, who also helped organize the early LakeFest races and numerous other chamber events, pointed out Kemper’s dedication to the community.
“When anything was needed in the community, you knew with John at your side, it was a done deal,” Morris said.
Like Klaeger, she described Kemper as a friend and mentor.
“He will be missed every day. My heart is sad,” she said. “Griff’s and my love go out to Belinda, Lindsay, (son-in-law) Dave, and the rest of his family.”
The EDC’s Christian Fletcher added that there are so many things around Marble Falls and the Highland Lakes for which Kemper championed. One of the biggest things Kemper work toward for years was bringing a full-fledged hospital to Marble Falls. He was probably one of the most excited people in the area when Baylor Scott & White Medical Center-Marble Falls broke ground.
“He was always so involved behind the scenes in making the community what it is today,” Fletcher said. “You look at all he did to play off the community’s advantages and strengths to make it the tourism destination it’s become and the economic hub. It’s incredible how much John impacted the community. He had a huge impact on my career and life.”
As Fletcher pointed out, Kemper’s fingerprints are on so much of what Marble Falls was and what it has become. It’s not just the things he did but the way he did them. Despite the awards and accolades he earned, even the international attention the Blue Bonnet Cafe has garnered, Kemper stayed the same humble, generous man who valued hard work and giving back to the community.
“John was just an awesome, awesome guy,” said Johnny Campbell of the EMS. “He touched a lot of people’s lives. You know, one of the things I remember of John was, after every fish fry, he’d sit down in that chair at the Blue Bonnet, have a piece of pie and a glass of milk. And then, we knew it was done.
“Damn, I’m going to miss him,” Campbell added. “I really am.”
John Michi Kemper was born October 21, 1952, to George Alexander Kemper Jr. and Anna Bess “Betsy” Bennett Kemper. He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Belinda Kemper; two children, Lindsay Plante and husband David and Celeste Taylor and husband Nate; siblings, George “Butch” Kemper and wife Janice, Charles “Chuck” Kemper and wife Cheri, and Betsy Kemper; four grandchildren, Ella, Camille, John Heyward, and Anna; and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.
His full obituary is online.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be not be a public service at this time for John Kemper. However, there will be a celebration of life later this year.