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Grampa

Today was Grampa's birthday.

His legacy was not only two children and four grandchildren (and now six great-grandchildren), but words -- words announcing breaking stories in newspapers across America for more than 40 years, words shaped into stories and many poems, words jotted down about his children's sayings, words from classic poems read quietly to himself or aloud to his grandchildren. I had the pleasure of knowing him until I was nine, and I remember his dramatic readings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Children's Hour":

"Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair."

Or Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman":

"The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding,
Riding, riding,
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door."

And another favorite of his, Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha":

"By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis..."

John Oscar Knox was born on Easter Sunday, 2 April 1899, a bright, cold day with occasional snow flurries, in the town of Great Barrington, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, at the southwestern corner of the state. His parents were a 52-year-old Scottish immigrant named Hugh Knox and Hugh's third wife, less than half his age, Swedish immigrant Cecelia Elizabeth Borg. John had a younger brother named Hugh and a much younger adopted brother, Herman.

On Monday, 25 June 1917, John Oscar Borg Knox was a member of Searles High School's 37-member graduating class, one of the five class members in the commercial rather than the college-preparatory program. He also, noted the Berkshire Courier newspaper three days later, wrote the words to the class song.

He got right to work, according to the 26 July 1917 issue of The Berkshire Courier: "John Knox has taken a position at Hull's coal yard and has been appointed a weigher of coal." With his poetic soul, I suspect this job was a matter of economic necessity. The AP World obituary on him noted, "The father's health failed while John was still a youngster and John worked hard at various jobs all through high school to help support his parents and a younger brother." He became supervisor of the coal yard and ended up working there for three years, but he wanted a career in journalism; in high school he had published his own typewritten newspaper and passed it around for free.

As World War I was drawing to a close, he was 19 when he enlisted on 1 October 1918 as a private in the Students' Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) Williams College Unit in Williamstown, Mass. A Nov. 23, 1918 letter exists granting him a Thanksgiving furlough from the post, "from Wednesday, November 27, at 12:15 P.M., until Friday, November 29, at noon ... to visit his parents who are in Great Barrington, Mass." He was honorably discharged from the United States Army on 12 December 1918 at the expiration of his term of service; his discharge papers described him as having "excellent" character, and blue eyes, red hair, fair complexion, and being 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall.

He finally had the chance to begin working in a field that suited his love of writing and his intense curiosity about the world. His early journalism work was with the Springfield (Mass.) Republican in the early 1920s. I think it was my grandmother who told me that when he interviewed for this job, he was asked if he knew about sports. He said yes -- then quickly boned up on sports! After three years at the Republican and a year at the Rochester Post-Express, Grampa began his 41-year career with the Associated Press in 1923 at its Boston bureau, being a night editor, day editor, staff feature writer, second-in-command under the Boston bureau chief, and acting bureau chief. His stories appeared under the byline John B. Knox. He worked mostly at the Boston bureau, with a short stint in New York City later in the 1920s, where he saw Charles Lindbergh's ticker-tape parade down Broadway from his office window.

As an AP staffer, he broke the stories of the discovery of the 'new' planet Pluto, then called "Planet X," in 1930, and the Marshall Plan. He said of the latter in Yankee magazine, where he reminisced about his career in an article in the January 1966 issue called "Looking Backwards," "One of the great New England stories of all time came out of a Harvard Commencement, June 5, 1947. I bulletined for international distribution the announcement by Secretary of State George C. Marshall of his plan to restore the economies of Free Europe and halt the march of communism."

He covered a lot of other high-profile stories, including President Calvin Coolidge's funeral (after having been with Coolidge at his son's graveside), the Brinks robbery trial, Prohibition-day smuggling across the Canadian border, the welcome home for the Navy's first round-the-world fliers, the Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942 that killed 491 people, the replacement of steam locomotives by diesel-powered engines, the 1930 resurrection of the U.S.S. Constitution -- also known as "Old Ironsides," the nation's oldest warship, shipwrecks, missing persons, and Robert Frost's death, a story that won him a personal tribute from the AP's general manager. He also interviewed Frost (and received personal notes from the poet; one thanked him for "the best kind of good talk together"), as well as historian Arnold Toynbee, writer Sinclair Lewis and former Massachusetts Governor and Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, among other dignitaries. But his particular interests were science, literature, New England lore, and education (he was an official adviser to the Massachusetts school system); when he retired, the president of Harvard wrote that "the public and the Associated Press have been extraordinarily fortunate in having you as an interpreter."

He also wrote human-interest stories such as one a newspaper tribute described this way: "One of the Knox stories that prompted nationwide response told of the 1956 death by cancer of a 9-year-old boy who through his final stay in the hospital published a tiny newspaper with four daily editions."

By the time he retired, he was called "the dean of New England AP staffers."

He was fortunate enough to have a career that continued throughout the Depression and the years of raising a family. On 27 September 1924 in Boston, the 25-year-old editor married a 25-year-old stenographer, Marion H. Lewis. They raised their two children mainly in Arlington, Mass., and Newtonville, Mass. (where they lived from 1941 till 1970); their marriage continued until his death on 9 November 1970 from kidney cancer.

Poetry was a passion for him, and he owned hundreds of books of poems. Many of the poems he read and wrote held a lingering sense of melancholy, but also a deep love of nature that must have had its roots in the rivers, mountains and valleys around the hometown of his youth. In 1919 he wrote "Winter Sunset In Berkshire":

"The winter's day has drawn to its close,
Behind the hills the sun has sunk to rest,
The light is slowly fading in the west,
And twilight deepens into night's repose.

In silence, hushed and still, all nature lies,
No sound is heard upon the frosty air,
The fields of white and forest, gray and bare,
Merge in the gath'ring gloom as daylight dies.

Somber and eternal rise the hills
In brooding silence framed against the sky,
Their lofty summits, rising straight and tall,
Reminding us of Him, above Life's ills,
Who, deathless and all-seeing, reigns on high,
Who marks even the humble sparrow's fall."

Many years later, on November 25, 1963, he wrote another poem, "Always To Be Young," which was likely about the death of John F. Kennedy. The poem ended with the words,

"May one yet share a dream you still behold;
To dream ahead is always to be young.
Only when all dreams end can you be old."

I carry this lesson with me, along with his poems, newspaper stories and other mementos. I think about how I, too, came to write poems and stories and became a news reporter and feature writer. How I would love to share those experiences with him!

Happy Birthday, Grampa. I miss you.

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
basykes
Apr. 3rd, 2008 03:01 pm (UTC)
Lovely tribute to your grandfather!
stolen_identity
Apr. 10th, 2008 02:27 am (UTC)
*hugs* to you.
Beautiful tribute.

I was just blog surfing and stumbled upon this entry. I wrote my own tribute to my grandfather this week, as it marks the 1 year anniversary of his passing.
I think it's lovely to see tributes like this on the web :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )