January 12, 2012. From the Junior Historian Assoc. Norfolk Virginian-Pilot November 4, 1951.
Return of Millionaire Publisher's Body to Currituck Lifts Secrecy From Gifts to County and Education. By Robert W. Madry.
Currituck, N.C.....One day last month the newspapers carried
the following paragraph in a news story:
Currituck, N. C., Oct, 20...The urn containing the ashes of the late Joseph Palmer Knapp, who died in New York on January 30 of this year, was today transferred from St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York City, to a final resting place in Memorial Cemetery near Moyock in Currituck County, North Carolina. The urn was accompanied by the widow, Mrs. Margaret Rutledge Knapp and friends.
There's a fascinating story-behind-the story of why Joseph Knapp, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., (who accumulated a vast fortune through publishing ventures in New York) and his family should want North Carolina to be the final resting place for his remains.
It's a story that can be told now for the first time, and with it can be revealed, also for the first time, the even more significant account of Publisher Knapp's contributions to educational progress in North Carolina. The story of Mr. Knapp's sympathetic financial help to the needy in Currituck and adjoining counties in the state over a period of thirty years will never be fully told, because he purposely kept no records.
Although he was a publisher who played the primary role in the development of a group of magazines which he dominated and whose circulation rose to more than 15,000,000 (giving him the greatest magazine reader audience in the world), he had a natural aversion to personal publicity.
He firmly but politely declined to give interviews concerning himself or his many publishing enterprises. Even in New York his office was not at 250 Park Avenue, where Collier's and some of his other magazines were published, but four blocks away on Fifth Avenue. And except for President Thomas H. Beck, Editor William Chenery of Collier's Clarence Stough and other top executives, Knapp seldom saw any of the thousands of people who worked for his vast enterprises.
A close friend of Mr. Knapp in Currituck tells a story that well illustrates the publisher's successful efforts to avoid the limelight himself. He recalls that Ben Dixon MacNeil, the veteran correspondent down on the coast, got to know Knapp well and spent many evenings in his home but always with the understanding that what the publisher said was entirely off the record.
N0 MAGAZINE ARTICLE
A search fails to reveal any magazine article on Knapp's career. The closest thing to it was an article carried by Fortune Magazine in 1937 in which a sketch on Knapp was included as a part of a general story about the Crowell enterprises and their top executives.
Joseph Knapp loved the outdoor life and after successfully launching his various enterprises he spent a good deal of his time on his three hobbies, helping other people, chiefly his neighbors, overcome their financial difficulties, hunting and fishing. His powerful frame and rugged features expressed his character. He had not only the strength of the frontiersman but his skills as well. He could have lived happily and well in the wildest country.
The first benefactions of Mr. Knapp in North Carolina went chiefly to the people of his beloved Currituck County. Although he had an apartment in the River House in New York, a house in the Catskills, and a camp in Canada, he spent a great deal of the last 35 years of his life (he died last January at the age of 86) working, hunting, and fishing with the people of Currituck.
Mr. Knapp was a demon for work and he devoted himself without stint to his vast enterprises. He was a great executive who had a genius for picking able lieutenants to carry out his assignments and whether he was in his Catskills home or down on Mackey Island, he was always in close touch with his business associates. He guided the policy-making and held a veto power over final decisions.
It was the lure of wild ducks that first took him to Currituck in 1916. He soon became acquainted with Thomas Dixon (of Leopards Spots and Birth of a Nation fame) and purchased from Dixon his hunting lodge and grounds on Mackey Island in Currituck Sound. He later built a residence which he designed himself. This is the present home of Mrs. Knapp, the former Margaret Rutledge of Summit, Mississippi. Mrs. Knapp planned and planted the gardens of boxwood, camellias and azaleas together with native hollies and red cedars.
GAVE CURRITUCK OVER HALF MILLION
During his 35 year residence there he and Mrs. Knapp contributed more than half a million dollars to give Currituck a model system of rural schools second to none in the state.
Of great importance and significance in the history of education in North Carolina is the fact that the Knapp contributions enabled Currituck to become the first county in the state to adopt a free textbook plan, to serve free school lunches, to employ a school nurse, and to use methods of visual education.
State Superintendent Clyde Erwin says that, so far as he knows, Currituck led the state in these modern improvements, which also included a nine month school term, and set an example which the state later followed when it took over support of the schools.
Official records show that Mr. Knapp made his first donation to the Currituck schools in 1923 in the amount of $50,000. He followed this up pretty soon with another $50,000 and up to the time of his death he continued to make such contributions annually.
Through his generosity, early surveys of the County's school, agricultural and economic needs were made; new school houses were built and old ones were repaired; school buses were acquired, teacherages were established, school supervisors, nurses and dentists, music teachers and home demonstration agent and vocational teachers were employed and home economics courses were set up in the schools.
In 1925 he employed the late R.Y. Winters of N.C. State College to make an economic survey of the entire county. Three years earlier he had arranged for the U.S. Bureau of Education to make a school survey of the county.
Mrs. Knapp paid for construction of the first brick school house on Knotts Island. It was the first school in the county to be completely equipped. Mr. Knapp contributed $175,000 for a new building at Poplar Branch. He made substantial contributions every year to the county Board of Public Welfare and he gave $10,000 toward the establishment of the Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City.
It's little wonder that the clerk of the County Commissioner's said in a published statement on May 27, 1932: “Mr Knapp has given us more this year than we have paid in taxes.”
Mr. Knapp took a deep personal interest in the development of the school program and met frequently with the school boards in making plans and policy. He always left the details to others.
As a condition for his gifts he insisted that the best available teachers be secured and that sufficient salaries be paid to attract and hold them; that the “teacher know his or her community and be an all-year helpful resident;” that primary grades be considered of greatest importance; that in the curriculum home economics and agricultural education be considered of "utmost importance." "Our aim," Mr. Knapp explained, "is to teach clean homes, good food, good health, and good farms as essential to the well—being of Currituck County."
He insisted that the School Board study and adopt the most advanced methods employed in other sections of the country (he listed a dozen such schools). He wanted teachers "who believe in learning by doing, who have the ability and tact to lead in community life, who love their job and believe that it extends from January through December and over many more hours per day than merely the school hours.“
Mr. Knapp also believed in helping his neighbors with personal financial problems, provided that they were trying to help themselves. Many citizens of Currituck, threatened with the loss of their homes through heavy mortgages, were able to keep them because he helped them pay off the mortgages.
During the depression years he established and furnished credit for the operation of the Currituck Mutual Exchange. This enabled the farmers to finance their crops and to buy at wholesale prices and to hold their produce for the best market. This cooperative turned the tide when many farmers were on the verge of foreclosure.
What scant newspaper publicity Mr. Knapp suffered in these years was in the course of two pet projects for the propagation and preservation of wildlife, "More Game Birds in America" and "Ducks Unlimited." He encouraged the farmers to propagate quail and to charge for shooting rights. In cooperation with the Canadian government he protected the breeding grounds of wild ducks and geese in Canada by damming up old drainage canals and restoring lakes which had dried up.
Knapp was forever getting new ideas to help his neighbors in Currituck. Most of them worked and when they didn't he just charged them off to experience and hurried on to new plans. One day he ate some tasty blueberries in a New York restaurant. Why not grow these in Currituck? he asked himself. He got a local men to work on it. They didn't do so well, but in the process, State College put Emmet Morrow on the job of testing, breeding and promoting elsewhere in North Carolina. Now it is a million dollar industry in Sampson and adjoining counties.
On another occasion 300 farm families of Currituck presented Mr. and Mrs. Knapp with an unusual Christmas gift in the form of two seaman's chests filled with jars of preserved fruits, vegetables, pickles, condiments and the like from the pantries of Currituck housewives. The gift was in appreciation of the helpfulness of the Knapps, especially in promoting the live-at—home program. They were deeply touched by the gift. And the next day Mr. Knapp had launched another farm project. "These preserves are marvelous," he said. "why not sell them to the public?" It was done and the farmers and housewives of Currituck again profited.
Long before he came to North Carolina to live Mr. Knapp had heard a lot about the state, through his business association with James B. Duke, who had founded the American Tobacco C0., (and later was to endow Duke University). It was for this company that Knapp's printers turned out millions of small pictures of baseball players which at one time were packaged with cigarettes.
In 1891, Mr. Knapp, who later was to become head of publishing firms with the largest magazine reader audience in the world, made his only venture in the daily publishing field when he and Mr. Duke began publication of the New York Recorder. After five years the publication was suspended, but Mr. Knapp turned to other publishing ventures.
Mr. Knapp not only played a primary part in developing a group of magazines who circulations rose to more than 15 million; he also reached eminence as rotogravure printer and insurance executive. He founded the American Lithographic C0. in 1895 and its growth was rapid until he sold it in 1929. He was instrumental in developing a multicolor press, a device which picked up a sheet of paper and carried it over a number of cylinders, each imparting a separate color impression. This press helped him to establish in 1903 the associated Sunday Magazine, first magazine supplement to be published for daily newspapers.
Mr. Knapp was also active in the management of the Metropolitan Insurance Company which his father had founded, having inherited his father's stock. He was for many years a director and chairman of the company's finance committee. In the hope of aiding low income groups, he brought about in 1919 a mutualization of the Metropolitan.
The largest single contribution Mr. Knapp made to public education in North Carolina was through the influence of Dr. Frank Graham and had its beginning one rainy afternoon five years ago when "Dr. Frank" was sitting at his desk in ivy-clad South Building, pondering ways and means of finding financial support for several projects urgently needed by the state and University at that time.
Before him lay a pile of correspondence and memoranda all bearing on these projects--all pleading desperately for help. He sat there pondering over what appeared at the time to be the impossible.
Then something happened. His secretary in the outer office buzzed him. It was a telephone call from New York, and William L. Chenery, the editor of Collier's Magazine, a long time friend, was on the other end of the line.
A HELPING HAND
Two days later Mr. Chenery arrived in Chapel Hill. Getting to the point promptly he suggested that Mr. Knapp was now ready, through the Knapp Foundation, to lend a helping hand to projects that would advance certain desirable progress for the whole state. Mr. Knapp had some ideas of his own, but did Dr. Graham have any suggestions?
The University President pinched himself to make sure he was awake. Suggestions? Why, he was full of them, but he thought it best to list them in the order of what he considered priority at that time.
Additional funds for a statewide Public School Survey were listed as a No. 1 need. The survey had been provided for by the legislature and the state had appropriated a total of $50,000 for the expense of it, but that was not more than half enough. Would the Knapp Foundation supplement or match this fund?
Then there was the University of North Carolina Fisheries Research Institute down on the coast which was just getting underway, with Dr. R.E. Coker as Chairman and Dr. Hardin Tanlor as Director. A preliminary survey had indicated that scientific research could be made the basis for the conservation and rapid expansion of the fisheries industry in North Carolina.
Another project suggested was the State College Technical Institute at Morehead City.
Soon after Mr. Chenery returned to New York, he telephoned Dr. Graham that the Knapp Foundation was interested in some of these projects. Could he come to New York for a conference right away?
Dr. Graham caught the next plane for New York, where he presented the programs for the three projects. Back in North Carolina, he conferred with Governor R. Gregg Cherry, who quickly saw the value of the three-fold program, and promised that he would to the extent of his ability, see that the state matched the Knapp Funds for all three projects. For the School Survey the Knapp Foundation granted a total of $100,000. For the University's Fisheries Research $130,000 was granted, and for the State College Technical Institute $20,000.
There is already at hand plenty of evidence that these three projects have greatly stimulated the development of the school plans, the industries, and resources of North Carolina.
Since Mr. Knapp had previously expressed a deep personal interest in the University's nationally famous Institute of Government, under the direction of Albert Coates, Dr. Graham had presented the Institutes program to the foundation.
Joseph Knapp was born during the Civil War in Brooklyn where he was taught as a child that Abraham Lincoln was next to the greatest man who ever came to this earth and that the Southerners of the Civil War period were rebels who deserved to be punished severely. But after coming to North Carolina to live, recalls Dudley Bagley of Moyock, one of Mr. Knapp's closest friends and neighbor, Mr. Knapp's childhood attitude was completely changed and he was ever eager to contribute to projects designed to improve the social and economic conditions in this region. How he designed and completed the Confederate monument at Currituck Court House is a story in itself.
"Joseph Knapp had his head in the clouds but his feet were always on the solid ground," neighbor Bagley said of him. "He was a dreamer and a hard-boiled business man at the same time. When he gave his money for what he considered worthy causes, he gave from a generous heart with no thought of reward here or in the hereafter."