Remember the Reader’s Digest feature titled “My Most Unforgettable Character,” in which subscribers recalled colorful people who changed their lives?
My most unforgettable character was William Franklin Knight, 1922-2013. Bill died on Christmas Day at age 91, but I can still hear his mischievous chuckle and Maryland drawl. Whenever the phone rings at 3 a.m., I’ll imagine it’s Bill rousting me from bed to greet 300 inbound troops at Bangor International Airport.
“I have to be in the office at 8,” I would protest, hoping to get my sleep, but he would have none of it.
That was the crusty patriot made famous in the 2009 documentary “The Way We Get By.” The film depicts him and fellow Maine Troop Greeters Jerry Mundy and Joan Gaudet shaking hands and lifting spirits. Bill apparently feared nothing, not even the movie’s bare-knuckled depiction of him living in poverty on his Bradford farm.
I got to know Bill well when I was an active troop greeter, but I knew him even better after 2006, when as a newly retired 54-year-old, I began having breakfast with him. Sensing my anxiety, he urged me to keep my eye on the future. Not that he avoided the past, as his was filled with many highs and lows.
There were two wives, Shirlie and Selma (or Sally, as he called her). Two children, Catherine and Joanne. All four died of cancer. And a sister, Marie, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends who included Charlotte Moscone, Jeanne Moffatt, the Wednesday “Breakfast Crew,” and his adopted family, Dick, Lynn, Meg and Molly Ryan. Filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly were with him to the end at the Maine Veterans’ Home.
Bill told me about arriving in Bangor in an Army Air Corps convoy in 1940 and seeing Dow Field under construction and in knee-deep mud. His wartime memories included attending a USO show in North Africa hosted by Bob Hope and a “girl singer” whose name he could never recall, and helping ready Allied vehicles later involved in the daring Aug. 1, 1943 treetop-level air raid over Romania’s oil refineries at Ploesti.
His post-war life saw Navy duty as a chief petty officer and as a recruiting agent. He also was a civilian automobile mechanic, an appliance repairman, and an 80-something American Folk Festival volunteer. He relished squeezing into his Navy uniform and appearing at Flag Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day ceremonies.
Bill had an unwittingly wicked sense of humor. One day in 2004 he asked me to taxi him to the airport and meet George W. Bush, who was scheduled to campaign in Bangor. I would simply drive my Honda Civic up to Air Force One and drop him off for a photo opportunity. I told him about Secret Service restrictions and left it at that. Bill found other transportation to meet the president while I remained tucked safely away in the audience.
William Knight was eulogized in a Jan. 12 funeral service held with military honors at Brookings-Smith in Bangor.