3. We remember C. Gregory Knight ... Thoughts from former advisees

C. Gregory Knight

He was Dr. Knight to me

Since the day I met him in 1982, I called him Dr. Knight until his last days. That really was bothersome to him because, in an American way, we should be friendlier and greeting each other as “Win” and “Greg.” But to me, it’s a no-no situation because as a Burmese Buddhist, I do not have the guts to call a teacher by his first name although I know the western tradition.  So I kept on calling him Dr. Knight while he kept insisting to me many times to call him Greg. Finally, on a day while he and his beloved wife Marieta visited my home in Salinas, California, he overheard a phone discussion I had with a mutual friend, a Caucasian America like him, urging me to call him by his first name, Joe, instead of Dr. Forrest.  My explanation was the same, a teacher has been always ranked (regarded) as the same respect (and level) as Bhudda, Dhamma (teachings), and Sangha (Buddha’s monks); thus, I couldn’t call him by his first name.  Since that time, he gave up insisting that I call him Greg.  Now we have lost a kind, funny, and a faithful geographer. But to me, he was a great friend called Greg.  God bless and rest in peace, Dr. Knight. —U Win (Ph.D. ’89)

Taking care and using humor

True to his form as a thoughtful, supportive, and insightful supervisor, Greg Knight began taking care of my well being before I met him— or even arrived in the United States. I traveled from South Africa to the U.S. on a freighter whose destination was supposed to be Boston, although my ticket declared that I would be “delivered to a USA post north of the equator.” The promise was kept, but we landed in New York. When it was known that this would be our destination, the captain kindly sent a message to Penn State. When I stepped off the ship there was Ken (Slow) Lerner, another of Greg’s students, waiting to meet me. I was treated to a New York City weekend, including a visit to the beaches on Fire Island, before being driven to State College on the Monday morning. Greg had arranged it without a word, and without fuss. I soon discovered that this was his normal way of working— apart from providing intellectual support and guidance, Greg simply went ahead and made things happen— whether care and transport for a stranger, a suitable committee member from English studies, financial support for field work, or whisking me across the continent to an AAG meeting in Seattle. Nothing was ever a problem—those were simply tasks to be undertaken as part of what I came to think of as his pastoral care. Greg also had a tremendous, and sometimes wicked, sense of humor. At our first meeting in his office, he managed to ease me out of his office by wheeling his chair ever closer to mine, while I wheeled backward on mine. After wondering whether or not I could say anything about this strange behavior, I was told: “It’s a good way of testing the size of people’s personal space.” And when I came to the point of writing my comprehensive exams, Greg’s instructions at the top of his list of topics was: “Answer one, two, three, four, five, or six of the following questions.” It took me half an hour just to resolve that challenge! It’s not an exaggeration to say that Greg made my time at Penn State the rewarding time that it was. Although we didn’t see one another more than once or twice after my return home—we wrote occasionally—his support and guidance shaped the way I tried to work with my own graduate students: outstandingly good lessons in scholarship and humanity, well taught and well learned. —John Butler-Adam (Ph.D. ’77) Editor-in-Chief, The South African Journal of Science

My fondest memories of CGK

Hailing from a relatively poor Third World country (Trinidad and Tobago) and entering the Penn State graduate geography program as an inexperienced kid in late 1982 was a pretty intimidating prospect for me. At that time, Penn State geography was ranked number one in the United States. And alas, coming to central Pennsylvania in the middle of winter (Penn State was still on the quarter system!) only compounded my disorientation. Yet somehow I managed to slip effortlessly into the swing of things in the department, aided in no small measure by Lucky Yapa in whom I found a kindred intellectual spirit. I would go on to do my master’s under Lucky, focusing on the political economy of Third World underdevelopment. At this time, C. Greg Knight was only a blur in the background of my academic life, zipping around the department in that cheery, busy-like-a-bee manner of his. However, in 1985, Lucky headed off to the Netherlands on sabbatical and I was left stranded, precisely at the time I was about to start work on my Ph.D. I thought seriously about transferring to Berkeley geography to work with the radical folks there, but a class that I took with CGK, focusing on natural resources analysis, would change everything. Greg introduced me to the fascinating world of systems analysis (with which, up to that time, I was only superficially familiar) and the accompanying methodology of mathematical programming. I would go on to do my Ph.D. under Greg, along with a Ph.D. minor in operations research. But there was a fundamental problem that I had to contend with. Marxist political economy (which, at that time, I was determined to continue to use in my academic research since, for me, it is indispensable in any serious analysis of Third World underdevelopment) and systems analysis/math programming are seemingly irreconcilable paradigms. Greg, who had done a lot of his early work in West Africa, was wholly open to the political economy approach and encouraged me to find a way of marrying both paradigms in my dissertation research. I proceeded to do just that, and was, I think, to a certain extent successful. Some 25 years later, I am now the Projects Director at an international, non-profit development organization and use this political-economy-cum-system-analysis methodology as an integral tool in all of my project development work. For this I am eternally grateful to CGK. Everything that I have mentioned above relates to my intellectual association with Greg, but there is another narrative that may be, I think, even more important in the larger scheme of things—my association with him as a truly caring person. His position as department head at Penn State geography and his razor sharp mind, I suspect, tended to mask this side of his personality. On this score, several things stick out in my mind, but there are two that are very personally meaningful to me. The first involves my divorce. In 1988, smack dab in the middle of my dissertation research, I was going through an awful divorce. In one of our weekly advising meetings in his office, I remember Greg looking at me and saying, “Put all your dissertation stuff in a box and leave it in my office.” I did just that. Greg had me dead to rights. I was so miserable and distracted at that time I was close to chucking it all in. One does not forget something like this. The second event occurred at my dissertation defense. The external member of my Ph.D. committee, I recall, was a professor from an engineering department. He really didn’t have a clue about political economy and kept objecting to what I was trying to do, philosophically, in the dissertation. I remember Greg coming to my defense on several occasions and clearly growing more and more annoyed. Finally, at the end of the (successful) defense, as we were leaving the room and out of earshot of the engineering professor, Greg turned to the rest of my committee and said (I remember it as if it was yesterday), “If ever I am on the committee of any of his graduate students, I will nail his #%@! to the wall.” What a guy. RIP CGK. You did good. —Davin Ramphall (M.S. ’86, Ph.D. ’90)

His knowledge and wisdom are in my heart

Greg taught me not only the knowledge of geography but also the wisdom of life. The greatest joy of life may lie in helping other people who need help, and this had been Greg’s philosophy of education. While at Penn State, Greg allowed me to explore many unfamiliar territories of geography and professional life, introducing me to his colleagues and new references. When I participated on a team of an NSF-sponsored international water project, I remember how effective yet delicate Greg was at managing the project team with different skills and personalities. Greg gave endless and unselfish help and advice throughout my career even long after I had left Penn State. When I became the chair of the department at Portland State and was faced with resolving some complex issues in 2013, it was Greg whom I consulted first. He was with me all the time offering genuine advice. His knowledge and wisdom will be in my heart for any next adventure of my life. —Heejun Chang, (Ph.D. ’01)