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Not long after James (J.O.) Kempthorn moved from Cleveland to Canton in 1922 to take a position as the chief auto mechanic at Jim Schlemmer’s Plymouth/Dodge dealership, the Canton Bulldogs won the first-ever National Football League (NFL) title. The Bulldogs would cease operations a few years after claiming the inaugural NFL title, but Kempthorn would go on to start a Stark County institution – Kempthorn Motors – that has been an essential part of Northeast Ohio for nearly 85 years.
Today Kempthorn Motors sells, leases and services Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Mazda, Volkswagen and pre-owned vehicles in Canton. There is a vehicle detail center at the Canton dealership and they operate a number of collision repair centers around Ohio. In 2021, the Kempthorn family opened a Jaguar Land Rover dealership in Akron, Ohio.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton today in large part because representatives from professional teams throughout the Midwest gathered at Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hay’s downtown auto dealership twice in 1920 and formed American Professional Football Association, which they renamed the NFL in 1922. Kempthorn Motors is in the Hall of Fame City because two years after those owners’ meetings at Haye’s Hupmobile showroom in 1920, J.O. Kempthorn went to work at Schlemmer’s dealership.
J.O. was a flight enthusiast who grew up on a farm in the coal-mining town of Sherrodsville in rural Carroll County, before setting out on his own. After living at the Canton YMCA for several years as he learned the ins and outs of the automobile industry, J.O. eventually held the position of Sales Manager and then General Manager at Schlemmer’s dealership.
Having established important connections in Detroit during his rise through the ranks, he drove through the night to the Motor City in 1938 to bid on the rights to purchase Schlemmer’s business. J.O. returned to Canton with a signed contract and soon thereafter opened Kempthorn Motors at 811 Cleveland Ave. As part of the deal, Kempthorn also took over the used car lot at 916 Market Ave. N, around the corner from the showroom.
As Kempthorn Motors expanded operations, J.O. moved the business to its current location at 1449 Cleveland Avenue in 1950. J.O. established Kempthorn Motors and solidified it with a strong service department that remains a company hallmark, but it was his son, Dick Kempthorn, who made the family business what it is today. By the time Dick Kempthorn went to work for his father and eventually took over the dealership, he had been a central figure in a national Saturday Evening Post article about Canton McKinley’s storied football program, an All-American linebacker at the University of Michigan and then a decorated war hero.
Following a standout senior season as a linebacker and quarterback at Canton McKinley in 1943, Kempthorn started at tackle for a Miami (Ohio) University team that was 6-0 when he left school to report to the Merchant Marines during World War II. He served 18 months as an engine cadet on a cargo ship in the Pacific War theatre before receiving his discharge in the summer of 1946. He then enrolled at the University of Michigan. Kempthorn was ineligible to play his first season in Ann Arbor because he had transferred from another school. He picked up the nickname “Killer” as a standout linebacker on the University of Michigan’s back-to-back national championship teams of 1947 and ’48.
On the same day he and his Michigan teammates arrived in Pasadena via train for the 1948 Rose Bowl, the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Kempthorn in the 1948 NFL Draft. Nearly a year later, the Cleveland Browns – under the direction of former legendary coach Paul Brown – selected him in the All-America Football Conference’s Secret Draft of December 1948. As a senior in 1949, Kempthorn was a Look Magazine All-American and the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1950 but stayed in Ann Arbor as graduate assistant coach for the 1950 season before joining the Air Force in January of 1951.
Kempthorn graduated from flight training the following year and then flew 101 missions during the Korean war, piloting F-86 Sabre jets and single-seat P-51 bombers. In February of 1953, a few months before the end of the war, Kempthorn kicked off his boots at Itazuka airbase in southern Japan after parking the old mustang propeller plane he had ferried there from Korea. The mission had been a rather routine one, and Kempthorn was waiting for the rest of his squadron to land.
Lt. Henry Rock, a native of Brooklyn, New York, landed next, but another plane came in too close behind Rock’s aircraft and crashed into it. The propeller of the second plane came to rest above Rock’s cockpit, trapping him inside. Rock was unscathed by the propeller, but he was trapped in the cockpit as the plane caught fire. Kempthorn sprinted about 200 yards to the plane and jumped on its wing.
The propeller from the other plane had loosened the glass canopy on Rock’s aircraft, and Kempthorn somehow managed to rip off the bullet-proof canopy with his bare hands. He then broke off the gunsight mounting and dived into the burning cockpit to get to Rock. Kempthorn’s hands were slightly burned as he used a large knife to cut Rock’s belt loose and help him from the plane. Shortly after they fled the aircraft, it exploded.
Kempthorn had previously earned an Air Medal for a dive-bombing mission to protect his first Lieutenant, who had survived a crash landing but needed cover from enemy forces until he could be rescued. Kempthorn would have ended his decorated career with an even 100 missions, but shortly after returning from what was supposed to be his final mission he learned that one of his pilots had been shot down. One last time, he laced up his boots and set out on his own, providing firepower to keep enemy forces away so the pilot who was shot down could be rescued.
Not long after Kempthorn came back to Canton from the war in the spring of 1953, Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown sent assistant coach Dick Gallagher to the Kempthorn home to persuade him to join the team. Kempthorn’s father had other plans; he wanted his son to come work for him and one day take over the dealership. J.O. met Gallagher at the door and sent him on his way.
Kempthorn started at his father’s dealership as a mechanic to learn the ropes the same way his father had. Dick bought the family business from his father in 1965. By the time J.O. died 20 years later, his son had expanded the business to two dealerships that featured a wide variety of brands. Kempthorn was also civic leader in Stark County, serving on the board of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Akron-Canton Airport.
Today, a third generation of Kempthorns runs the family business. Eric Kempthorn is president, assisted by sister Dana (Kempthorn) Parker and brother James in the operation of the dealership group. Eric spent serveral years in Charlotte with Joe Gibbs Racing before returning to Kempthorn Motors in 2014, leading the company on a tremendous growth spurt with continues today.
True to the family’s heritage, all three are involved in the community. Eric serves on the board of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Eric Snow YMCA in Canton, James is a longtime board member with Goodwill industries in Canton, and Dana leads many of the community outreach programs.
A fourth generation of the family is also now involved with Kempthorn Motors. Dana’s son, Kemp, is the operations manager at Jaguar Land Rover Akron, and Eric’s daughter, Kristen, is on the operations manager at the Canton dealerships.
One Hundred years have passed since J.O. Kempthorn came to Canton, and it has been almost 85 years since he started Kempthorn Motors. Throughout all those years, the company he founded remains a family business whose primary focus is the customer. Their friendly and passionate staff works tirelessly to provide a family-friendly shopping atmosphere and they look forward to seeing you!