Alice Gertrudis King Kleberg, of the King Ranch, which in 2018 covered 825,000 acres in Kleberg, Kenedy, Brooks, Jim Wells, Nueces, and Willacy counties in South Texas, was born to Capt. Richard and Henrietta (Chamberlain) King on April 29, 1862, at Rancho Santa Gertrudis (popularly known as the “King Ranch”), where she spent her whole life. As the years passed, she gained increasing responsibility, first caring for her father, then her mother, husband, and children. The only time she left the rancho for an extended period was for schooling.
Alice grew up with her four siblings: Henrietta Marie (Nettie), born in 1856; Ella Morse, born April 13, 1858; Richard II, born December 15, 1860; and Robert Lee, born February 22, 1864. The King children grew up at the ranch and spoke Spanish as well as English. Their kinship with the land developed early in life, and they felt at ease riding horses. Alice had a particularly regal, dignified bearing in the saddle. Henrietta King taught the children at an early age and also hired tutors—Professor Allen and a Mrs. McGuire from Virginia.
Along with her sisters, Alice King attended school at Henderson Female Institute, a Presbyterian girls’ school located in Danville, Kentucky. Alice and her sister Ella started school in 1871. By 1875 they were back on the ranch. Capt. Leander H. McNelly and his company of Texas Rangers were recipients of Henrietta and her daughters’ hospitality when the rangers returned from an extremely dangerous raid into Mexico to capture stolen Texas cattle. When the men arrived at the ranch, they were given supplies for their comfort and a dinner. Along with the meal came two big pound cakes, provided by the two daughters who had just returned from school, with a note that said, “Compliments of the two Miss Kings to the McNelly Rangers.”
Alice and Ella King were sent to school again to Mrs. Cuthbert’s Young Ladies’ Seminary in St. Louis, where Alice made many good friends, including Pearl “Lizzie” Ashbrook, whom Alice’s older brother, Richard, married. Alice excelled at Mrs. Cuthbert’s seminary and graduated as class salutatorian. Shortly after she returned to the ranch in 1881, she met the lawyer Robert Justus Kleberg [II], who arrived to the ranch at Captain King’s invitation. Robert Kleberg had bested King’s lawyers in the courts and Captain King respected talented lawyers and employed the best he could find. King hired Kleberg to work with his chief legal advisor, James B. Wells, Jr. Kleberg came from a family of very distinguished lawyers and judges who had made their mark in Texas.
Nineteen-year-old Alice King, with dark hair and brown eyes, was described as having a sweet, serious face. This “Princess of the Wild Horse Desert” immediately captivated Kleberg, and from that visit forward, there began “a most exceedingly proper, unhurried and fond Victorian courtship” between the cultivated young lawyer and Alice. She told their children in later years that she had known it was “love at first sight” when she laid eyes on the young lawyer—and his mustache.
Richard King was reluctant to give his consent for the marriage because after his son Lee’s death in 1883, Alice had become his mainstay. After King died of stomach cancer on April 14, 1885, Robert Kleberg assumed management of the King Ranch with Henrietta King. On June 17, 1886, Alice King and Robert Kleberg were married in the parlor of Santa Gertrudis. Mifflin Kenedy, a neighboring rancher and King’s business mentor, stood in for his good friend Richard King and gave the bride away. Alice and Robert, accompanied by Henrietta King, left on a honeymoon.
On November 18, 1887, Dr. Arthur Spohn delivered their first child, named Richard Mifflin Kleberg, after his grandfather and his grandfather’s best friend, Mifflin Kenedy. Robert and Alice Kleberg had four more children, all delivered by Spohn: Henrietta Rosa Kleberg (Larkin, Armstrong), born July 17, 1889; Alice Gertrudis Kleberg (East), born January 9, 1893; Robert J. Kleberg [III], born March 29, 1896; and Sarah Spohn Kleberg (Johnson, Shelton), born April 12, 1898. The five Kleberg children lived at the ranch until they were sent to school.
Alice Kleberg worked hard as a mother, daughter, and wife and assumed many of her mother’s duties, which included handling certain business matters and providing hospitality to the many people who came through the ranch gates. Friends lauded her warm-hearted gentility and sweet-natured grace. She was remembered as an unselfish woman who assumed the duties of motherhood with a deep happiness.
Henrietta King gifted the homestead of the main headquarters of the Santa Gertrudis, including the Main House hacienda and the surrounding 30,000 acres, to her daughter Alice because she had “lovingly and faithfully devoted practically her whole life to my care, consolation and aid.” Henrietta King died on March 31, 1925, at the age of ninety-two.
In the early 1900s Alice Kleberg began raising money for a hospital facility for Arthur Spohn, to be named for him. The Catholic Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word agreed to manage the hospital, and she was having trouble raising money because of religious prejudice. Years later, she wrote a strong editorial against what she viewed as religious bigotry. “I am a Presbyterian, but many of my dearest friends are Catholics. They do not love me less because I am Protestant. Should I love them less because they are Catholics?” Eventually, the money was raised, and the new Spohn Hospital was blessed on July 26, 1905. After the structure was destroyed by a hurricane in 1919, Alice Kleberg headed a committee tasked with its rebuilding. By 1923 the new and improved Spohn Hospital was operating with fifty beds on three floors. That same year, it acquired a Class A rating from the American College of Surgeons and was considered one of the best hospitals in Texas. By the late twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first century, the CHRISTUS Spohn Health System remains the premier provider of health services in South Texas, due to the original efforts of Alice.
Robert Kleberg died on October 10, 1932, after spending three years in a wheelchair from a crippling stroke. He lived by the strong belief that “those who possess power, property, or influence must hold it in trust for the use of their fellow man.”
Alice King Kleberg died on July 30, 1944. According to the Corpus Christi Caller, “Mrs. Kleberg was described by friends who knew her best as a woman of strong mind and character, but with gentleness of spirit and complete unselfishness. The hospitality of the King Ranch, under her direction[,] was traditional and no one in need was ever turned away empty-handed. ‘The coffee pot was always on.’” She is buried in Chamberlain Cemetery in Kingsville, Texas. In recognition of her charitable works, Alice’s children established the Alice G.K. Kleberg Fund in her honor in 1944. Since then, the fund has supported a large number of religious, educational, medical, anti-poverty, and youth-centered programs and initiatives. In addition, several local establishments bear her name, such as Alice G.K. Kleberg Elementary School in Kingsville.