BANGOR, Maine — One of America’s most famous troop greeters was laid to rest Sunday with a funeral that celebrated his irascible humor, deep generosity and patriotism.
With Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in attendance, friends recalled William Franklin “Bill” Knight as a veteran dedicated to serving others, who especially loved ensuring that all military who passed through Bangor International Airport got a hug or a handshake and a troop greeter’s coin.
Warmth, sadness and humor blended easily at Brookings-Smith Funeral Home during the hourlong funeral service for Knight, who died Christmas Day at age 91 at Maine Veterans Home in Bangor. Knight’s close friend Lynn Ryan imagined what the humble Knight would have made of the more than 100 people and military honor guard arrayed before his flag-draped coffin.
“Who the heck is at the airport?” Ryan imagined him saying.
Knight, Ryan said, was always a generous man. He rang the collection bell for The Salvation Army and helped disabled children, but his dedication to the troops, highlighted in the documentary “The Way We Get By,” really defined him.
The film won a host of documentary awards, led to its stars — Joan Gaudet, Knight and Gerald Mundy — gaining national recognition and visiting the White House, but most of all, it showed how the three senior citizens overcame poverty and ill health as they and other members of Bangor Troop Greeters greeted more than a million servicemen and women at the airport.
“He was a great, one of the Greatest Generation,” Troop Greeters President Charles Knowlen said of the retired chief petty officer, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1957 to 1981. “He would stick out his hand [to servicemen] and say, ‘Thank you, heroes.’ He was there every day. He would not leave the airport until the last flight left.”
The greeters will continue their work but feel the loss of Knight, Knowlen said.
Perhaps most heartfelt at the funeral was the speech by Mundy, whose deep bond with Knight was never masked by their acerbic exchanges. “The Way We Get By” producer Gita Pullapilly said the national publicity tour that followed the film’s release was often made more amusing, and occasionally more onerous, by the sparring.
“Jerry and Bill would have to share the same hotel room,” Pullapilly said. “They were kind of like [the characters from] ‘Grumpy Old Men.’ … We would be [thinking], are we going to have to be the parents here?”
“I loved him,” Mundy said, his voice raspy. He drew warm laughter when he choked up, then uttered a curse word, apparently aggravated at his own emotionalism.
“Yeah. I was the grumpy old man. I still am,” he said.
Mundy told the audience that he used to think that if he were a youngster today, he would want to grow up to be like his friend — “even if it was in a hotel room and we could not stand each other for five minutes,” he said.
Knight had a natural charm and was a shrewd procurer of donations for his various charity efforts, the speakers said. He could work a room expertly, had an ebullient personality, enjoyed flirting with female soldiers and loved baseball. He liked to joke that there ought to be a sequel: “The Way We Get By, Part II.”
Having helped him move several times, Ryan learned from Knight’s belongings how faithful and inquisitive he was. There were photos of every bed of yellow flowers he ever planted and of all sorts of animals, including some the former farmer raised himself. Knight kept with him several copies of the Bible, three copies of the Koran, three small statuettes of Buddha, and rosary beads, Ryan said.
“He never stopped searching for that relationship with Jesus,” Ryan said. “He sought God in many different places.”
And Knight’s love of teasing the people he liked was as constant as his generosity. Years ago, shortly before she underwent knee replacement surgeries, “I told him, ‘Bill, don’t come to the hospital to visit me. I go crazy on the drugs,’” Ryan said. “Bill said to me, ‘You go crazy?’”