City benefitted from Knoll’s life, leadership

Published 1:08 pm Saturday, August 16, 2003

By By JAN GRIFFEY / Niles Daily Star
I had the privilege in 1996 to sit down with Bob and Mary Knoll in their home on Hickory Street, which is the home in which Bob grew up, and talk with them for a story I would later write for that year's Horizons edition.
I knew Bob from covering the Niles City Council. I did not know Mary, and I did not know their rich, interesting story. It's one of hard work, responsibility and steadfast commitment to God, family and community.
Bob died on Thursday at age 77 after battling cancer.
The Knolls' story is so important because I think it exemplifies the qualities of so many strong, long-time Niles families who, because of the values they employed during their lives, built the foundation for and defined this community.
We reap those benefits today. It's families like the Knolls -- and people like Bob who gave of themselves unselfishly to get involved and provide true leadership -- that set our community apart and make it the one that's such a great place in which to live and raise a family today.
I've always thought Niles is the best-kept secret in the world. I love living here, have from day one and it's been 14 years now. I've had opportunities to leave, but in the end, I couldn't see myself anyplace else. Niles is home for me and I hope it always will be.
That didn't just happen, my feeling that way. People like Bob Knoll are behind the reasons I and so many others love life in our city.
The Knolls
Robert Andrew Knoll married the former Mary Jean Dickey in 1953 and Mary moved into the home on Hickory Street, which was built in 1925 by Bob's father, Andrew.
Mary helped Bob finish the raising of his youngest brother, David, when Bob was left in charge of the family after his mother died in 1953.
In their Hickory Street home, the Knolls raised three children of their own. Eldest child is son Andrew, who with wife, Helen, live in North Carolina and are the parents of the Knolls' only grandchildren, Michele and Gerald Andrew.
Their middle child is Ann, who lives in South Bend, Ind. During that interview it was so obvious how proud they are of Ann.
It was also in their home on Hickory Street that the Knolls enjoyed 19 precious years with their youngest child, Barbara, who they lost unexpectedly in 1983 to complications of a brain tumor. Barbara was an active student at Western Michigan University and the Knolls said there were few clues she was ill at the time.
I remember their voices changing when they talked about Barbara and living life with and without her.
It's difficult to find comfort when you lose a loved one, but I hope Bob Knoll's family is drawing comfort now from knowing he is again in the company of his youngest child.
Early years
At age 17, Bob Knoll graduated from Niles High School and immediately went to work for the Kawneer Co.
It was during World War II and jobs were plentiful because area manufacturers had geared up to produce supply parts, good and machinery for U.S. and allied soldiers.
After the war was over, Knoll went to work in 1946 for Simplicity Pattern Co. "as a gopher in the letterpress room."
Soon, Knoll was working on a Harris two-color press, then two Harris four-color presses and, finally, the huge, 77-inch Miehle press, which Simplicity was still operating in Niles in 1996.
Knoll, with 40 years of employment, retired in 1986.
Knoll's retirement came as a surprise to some. He was still a young man and wasn't the kind you'd expect to retire. However, Mary said she told him she didn't want to wind up living on his insurance. Thus, his retirement.
City Council leader
Bob may have retired from Simplicity, but he didn't settle in for a life of leisure.
Already serving as a city councilmember representing the city's third ward, Knoll ratched up his involvement in city government.
Mary's example of service to her church and community are equally impressive.
Knoll's leadership in the late 1980s, early 1990s is widely credited with saving the Southwestern Michigan Community Ambulance Service.
The ambulance service, which was formed by six neighboring municipalities including the City of Niles, Niles Township and Howard Township, was in financial chaos and was in real jeopardy of folding after the apparent suicide death of its director in the late 1980s.
Knoll, who was the city council's liaison on the ambulance service board, provided pivotal leadership.
Several people with whom I spoke on Friday morning about Bob said his cool head, his ability to listen to the ideas of others and to form a consensus of those ideas is what lead to the six municipalities agreeing to work to bale out and reorganize the ailing ambulance service.
Bob's involvement with the city council began in 1970, when he served as a member of the Greater Niles Recreation Board, a group formed by a merger of the city's parks and recreation board and the area school systems.
Thanks to grant monies from the State of Michigan, what is today our Riverfront Park, extending from the area across from the French Paper Co. dam to the railroad bridge, was first conceived.
The house on Hickory
In 1921, Andrew Knoll, Bob's father, who worked with Michigan Central Railroad, moved his family from Michigan City, Ind., to Niles.
In 1925, he built his home on Hickory.
There was an addition made to the home in 1939 to accommodate the eight Knoll children.
When Mary married Bob, his youngest brother, David, still had two years of high school to go.
During later years in their marriage, other of the six Knoll men came back to the house to stay, "but no more than any three at a time!" Mary exclaimed.
Bob said in 1974, when he first ran for the city council, he had a distinct advantage.
Because of his many siblings, "There wasn't anyone who didn't know a Knoll -- there were so many of them," he said.
The Knoll house on Hickory Street stands as a strong symbol of family and community. In it was raised a man who would then raise in it his family. And in doing so he would teach us all what it means to be a father, friend and community leader.
Funeral services for Bob Knoll are Monday at 11 a.m. at St. Mark Catholic Church. Burial will be in Calvary Cemetery in Niles.
Friends may call at Halbritter Funeral Home from 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 p.m. on Sunday.