New Castle, PA
A singular life
“I don’t think what we were doing was exceptional,” said Henry Knittel, the oldest resident at Whispering Oaks Retirement Home in Hermitage, PA.
Well, let’s see. He had one job (worked for Penn Power for 46 years), one wife (married to Margaret Shirk for 74 years), one daughter (Dorothy Cornell), and one lifelong passion (music).
That adds up to a lot of ones, so it’s fair to say that Henry’s life was singular in many ways. And singular, of course, means exceptional.
Henry was born on December 27, 1908, in Youngstown, Ohio, the second of Carl and Caroline Wollitz Knittel’s three sons. He attended public and German Lutheran elementary schools in Youngstown. After serving as class president and graduating with honors from The Rayen School, Henry got a job as a storeroom clerk at Pennsylvania and Ohio Power and Light in Youngstown.
When the Pennsylvania Power Company was formed, he transferred to New Castle. Because his job was essential, Henry was one of the fortunate few who had a job all through the Depression.
When World War II started, Henry wanted to serve in the army. However, Penn Power listed him as an essential employee. “What if I enlist anyway?” he asked. He was told that he would have no guarantee of getting his job back when he returned. So Henry decided to stay and do his job.
Never one to just do his job, Henry continuously did whatever he could to improve himself and the company. He took courses at Youngstown College, Penn State, and Westminster College, and attended industry-related conferences. “I brought back a lot of ideas about how to do things better,” Henry said. As the result of his abilities and commitment, he ended up as Penn Power’s General Purchasing Agent. He retired in 1973.
Henry spent all of these years with his one true love, Margaret. Born in Johnstown, PA, on September 29, 1907, she was the third of Harry and Marie Lotz Shirk’s eight children. She grew up in Girard and Youngstown, Ohio, and met Henry in Sunday School class.
From the beginning, music played an important part in their relationship. Henry had started piano lessons at the age of nine, and Margaret loved to dance. Radio was in its infancy, and only the wealthy had “Victrolas,” so when they had parties, Henry provided the music with his piano playing.
“I was always the piano player, never the dancer,” Henry said.
“But he got the girl anyway,” said their only child Dorothy, who delights in the stories she has heard about their courtship. “Maybe it was the canoe rides in Millcreek Park that did the trick. He even gave Mom a ukulele to strum while he paddled.”
Margaret worked at Strouss-Hirshberg department story until she married Henry on August 21, 1929.
“Those were the days when women didn’t work outside the home,” Henry said. “That’s why I have such a wonderful daughter.”
Dorothy, who was born in 1933, gives credit to the close relationship her parents always had. “Mom and Dad were constant helpmates to each other,” Dorothy said. “They were inseparable.”
When Henry had to go to work-related conventions, he didn’t like the idea of leaving Margaret behind. “The first year I went, I wasn’t too happy with it,” he said. “The next year I took my wife with me. It changed the complete pattern. Everybody started bringing their wives. It was much better that way.”
According to Dorothy, Margaret was the sweetest lady who ever lived.
“My mother was a very positive person, and she had a sparkle in her eye,” she said. “She loved to sing and dance. I can still remember her teaching me to dance when I was little. I would stand on her feet facing her, and she would dance with me on her feet.”
Margaret was an excellent homemaker who loved to cook and bake. “She was also very good at making things, too,” Dorothy said. “She sewed clothing for me by hand before she got a sewing machine. She did a lot of crocheting, and made afghans for everybody.”
Henry and Margaret shared a love of gardening. They grew fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers – many of which he started from seeds under lights in the house. During World War II, they had a bright red climbing rose bush in the shape of a large V (for victory), out where everyone could see and admire it.
Both Henry and Margaret liked working with young people. During the 1940s, Henry served as the leader of a cub scout pack and Margaret was a Brownie troop leader.
“She would drag me up there to help with the games and things,” Dorothy said. “That’s probably why I became a teacher. Years later people would come up to her and say, ‘Weren’t you my brownie leader?’”
They both were active in the churches they attended. Henry was choir director and organist at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Youngstown. At St. John’s in New Castle, he served as treasurer, organist, and church school teacher.
“Mom could usually be found singing in the choir,” Dorothy said.
Henry and Margaret were members of Clen-More Presbyterian Church, where Henry was an elder and substitute organist. They both were active in The Irvine Bible Class and Prime Timers social group.
In 1960, Henry joined the Masonic Lodge of the Craft and the Consistory at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in New Castle. This gave him the opportunity to live out every serious organist’s dream – to play the Cathedral’s magnificent organ, with its four keyboards and 5000 pipes. For 25 years he played it for all the Masonic functions and degree work, as well as reunions and family parties.
“People used to say they recognized me by the back of my head,” he said.
Henry himself rose to the 33rd degree, which is the highest in the Masonic order. “After I became a 33rd degree Mason, I went to their conventions every year,” Henry said. “My wife enjoyed that. She liked to see me in my ‘monkey suit,’ with the fez and coat tails.”
Henry also enjoyed playing popular music. “I played piano for dinners and organizations,” Henry said. “I have all of the Reader’s Digest music books, every one of them. And I subscribed to a magazine called Popular Music.”
For many years Henry played piano for American Legion functions. He was given the Man of the Year award, which is given to non-veterans for outstanding service to the Legion. The presentation was made by Judge Lyon, who had been one of Henry’s cub scouts. Judge Lyon spoke of how much Henry had contributed to his development as a young person.
In 1993, Henry suffered malignant melanoma on the retina of his left eye. Radiation therapy killed the tumor but left him blind in that eye.
“But if he hadn’t had that treatment, he probably wouldn’t be here today,” Dorothy said.
Henry and Margaret moved from New Castle to Whispering Oaks on January 2, 2001, the very first day the doors were open there.
In 2002 Henry suffered a stroke. Fortunately, it did not affect his ability to play piano and organ. However, he started losing the sight in his right eye because of macular degeneration. The progress of the disease has been stopped, but he can read only by using a powerful magnifying glass.
Margaret passed away on March 7, 2004. But even without his lifelong helpmate, he continues to be of service to others. Despite his problems with sight, he played piano for chapel services every week at Whispering Oaks. He could play a lot of music from memory, and he learned new music by ear.
“If you can hum it, and he can find the right chords, he can play it,” Dorothy said.
He also learned new music by using his magnifying glass to read the notes, then memorizing them.
Henry passed on his love of music to his two grandsons. He gave them each their first musical instruments – Jeffrey a piano and Bradley a trombone. Brad studied music at Oberlin, and has played with the Naples Philharmonic in Florida.
At Whispering Oaks, Henry was also known for his intelligence.
“I think he’s the smartest man I know,” said his caregiver, Olga Tenkewich. “He does the Reader’s Digest Word Power every month. He knows all the words. And he’s teaching me about the Bible.”
During his life, Henry has directly touched many other people, such as Olga Tenkewich and the others around him whom he has inspired with his enduring spirit and sense of humor. Then there are the thousands of people who have heard his piano and organ playing, and have been inspired by that. And if you used electricity in the area served by Penn Power any time from the 1930s to the 1970s, you yourself are a beneficiary of Henry’s willingness to go the extra mile.
Without Henry, his wife and daughter wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things they’ve done. That includes the formation of character in countless children, from Margaret’s Brownies and Henry’s cub scouts to Dorothy’s students, and to their two grandsons and three grandchildren.
So you decide whether or not Henry Knittel’s life is exceptional.
Henry passed away on July 4, 2007.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008