Fells Point bids farewell to man of character

October 01, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Ruth Goetz stood in noonday sun along the 500 block of S. Wolfe St. yesterday to watch an eight-piece brass band, a couple hundred mourners and a lone bagpiper march south to the harbor.

"I've seen it in New Orleans," she said, "but in my 70 years I never seen it on Wolfe Street."

Never in Baltimore, as best anyone can remember, until the funeral of H. Jefferson Knapp III, local character nonpareil.

"Jeff wanted a Viking funeral where they put your body on a boat and light the funeral pyre at sea, but all he had was a rubber dinghy," said Larry Benicewicz, a friend who flew the brass band into town from the Crescent City. "We gave him a New Orleans send-off, instead."

Jeff Knapp was a generous barkeep, an incorrigible prankster, and a slavish scene-maker known as the Abe Lincoln of Fells Point for reasons carved into his face.

He died Saturday at age 63, setting off rounds of waterfront fetes in his honor that lasted until the bars closed this morning.

Yesterday they eulogized him, cried and danced for him, and cremated him.

"Jeff was always the spirit behind an impossible lifestyle," said Megan Hamilton, who carried a basket of flowers to give to mourners and spectators lining the street. "He couldn't [party] without style, and if he couldn't do it his way he'd just stop. He must have been ready to go."

Some thought it beyond coincidence that Mr. Knapp passed away a week before the Fells Point Fun Festival, where for the first time public drinking would not be allowed.

In front of the funeral parade as it left the Lilly and Zeiler funeral home on Eastern Avenue was a man carrying a floral arrangement of carnations shaped like the letters V.T.N.F., which stood for Mr. Knapp's beverage battle cry: "Vodka Tonic No Fruit!"

Behind it marched his brother, Phil Knapp, carrying a large color photograph of the deceased taped to a stick. On either side were Jeff Knapp's four children and his grandchildren. Next came the tuba, drums, trumpet and trombone of the Treme Brass Band playing Old Rugged Cross, followed by a gang ofmourners whose ranks swelled as Thames Street neared.

Bringing up the rear was Wayne Francis, piper for hire, who played "Amazing Grace" before Mr. Knapp's open coffin and blew a spirit of Eire that snaked through the narrow streets and alleys of Southeast Baltimore.

The procession turned onto Thames Street from Wolfe, paused before the Cat's Eye Pub where Mr. Knapp is best remembered by tugboat men and Ph.Ds as the blasphemous wit who gave away drinks like water. It then rolled along to "When The Saints Go Marching In" toward the new promenade where his name and motto are chiseled in a brick his son Gary painted gold the night of his father's death.

There, a man who was once a minister stood on a platform, held a Bible and gave the final blessing.

"Jeff's stories will be told and retold for years to come," said P.J. Trautwein. "The way he used to take wedding pictures and have them developed in time to give to the bride at the reception; the first time he dressed up as Lincoln to dedicate the Tomb of the Unknown Wino in the Fells Point square to the dismay of then Mayor Schaefer; when he staged the Sputnik crash on Thames Street."

And now, Mr. Trautwein said, Herbert Jefferson Knapp III has been reunited with his late Cat's Eye commandos Kenny Orye and Ralph Miller who succumbed to the party a few years before him.

The preacher said: "All I can say to you in the Great Beyond is this: 'Watch out! They are together again and they are on the loose' "

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