Hundreds gather in tributes to Henry Knott, Israel Cohen Millionaire philanthropist is eulogized by daughter as a harsh critic of wealth

November 30, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Henry J. Knott Sr. -- a Baltimorean who made and gave away hundreds of millions of dollars in a life of 89 years -- was eulogized yesterday as a harsh critic of wealth.

Standing before a funeral crowd of more than 800 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Patricia K. Smyth remembered a letter her father sent to each of his 12 children in 1990, one that pointedly addressed money.

The oldest of the one-time bricklayer's children, Mrs. Smyth read from the letter, which included this wisdom: "Those who want to be rich are falling into a trap. Poverty is not an absence of things but an abundance of desire. When you start to think you deserve your blessings, you don't. I must warn you of the pitfalls of acquiring wealth and frivolous matters [and] all the lousy money in the world won't do you any good in eternity, will it?"

All of this from a man with almost no hobbies, whose personal wealth was estimated in the ballpark of $150 million in 1987, a year before he sold his holdings in the Arundel Corp. for $88 million.

It was Mr. Knott's devotion to giving so much of it away -- like sharing a great catch of fish before it rots (his favorite metaphor) -- that earned him an altar crowded with a cardinal, four bishops and more than 30 priests.

From the pulpit, a loved one spiced the Prayer of the Faithful with an exhortation of "Erin go bragh" in memory of the red-headed Irish-American who grew up fighting and gambling -- both for fun -- in East Baltimore.

The bulk of Mr. Knott's charity -- money made as a builder of homes, apartments and office complexes throughout the metropolitan area -- went to local Catholic schools and hospitals, particularly Loyola College.

In his homily at the Mass of Christian burial, Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler described in gentler terms an unpretentious man often thought of as hard -- especially in business circles -- and even harder to know.

"He had a twinkle in his eye, sometimes almost impish," said Cardinal Keeler, noting how faithfully Mr. Knott attended daily Mass. "But it was so genuine whenever the subject of his wife and family camp up, a twinkle when he talked about his early work with his hands. There was a humble spirit behind his use of the gifts God gave him."

Marion Burk Knott attended her husband's farewell in a wheelchair, following his oak casket out of the church with a quiet look of acceptance and eyes that appeared dry.

Some mourners -- who included about 51 grandchildren and 55 great-grandchildren as honorary pallbearers -- cried openly.

One story told seemed to sum up Henry Knott as well as any.

It seems, said Mrs. Smyth, that her father once had to take one of the children to the hospital for an appendectomy. A surgeon was not immediately available, but somehow the nurse on duty found one to get to work right away.

After the surgery, the nurse explained to Mr. Knott -- who had met her before but did not remember her -- that she had once, years before, swallowed her pride and asked him for a loan for nursing school. He made the loan, later refusing the woman's offer to pay it back, asking only that she become a good nurse.

Finding a doctor to save a child's life, Mrs. Smyth explained, was the woman's way of returning a favor to a millionaire.

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