Bill Knight, an adjunct pastor at First Presbyterian Church, has had a variety of twists and turns in his life on the way to landing in Jay County. He dropped out of high school twice, was involved in both the European and Asiatic-Pacific theaters in World War II and clashed with South African authorities over apartheid. (The Commercial Review/Jack Ronald)
Bill Knight, an adjunct pastor at First Presbyterian Church, has had a variety of twists and turns in his life on the way to landing in Jay County. He dropped out of high school twice, was involved in both the European and Asiatic-Pacific theaters in World War II and clashed with South African authorities over apartheid. (The Commercial Review/Jack Ronald)
Bill Knight has:
•Dropped out of high school — twice.
•Been a sailor aboard a destroyer torpedoed in the English Channel.
•Walked through the ruins of Hiroshima.
•Clashed with South African authorities over apartheid.
•Worked as an engineer, a caregiver, the head of a custodial crew and a maintenance man.
•And served as pastor for half a dozen Indiana churches.
“I love to preach,” Knight said last week. “I love the feeling of being a part of something in the community.”
Since 1991, that community has been Portland and Jay County.
But the 88-year-old’s path took a lot of twists and turns before ending up here.
Knight served as a Disciples of Christ pastor in Pendleton, Sheridan, Princeton, Union City, Clarksville and Oak Town.
Born in Elizabeth, N.J., he was a rambunctious 16-year-old when he decided to quit school the first time. His high school principal, Knight joked, was happy to see him go.
“He said, ‘Knight, that’s the best news I’ve had all year,’” Knight recalled.
Apparently there had been an incident involving a dusty chalk eraser that had targeted the principal’s dark blue suit.
“I left Newark in January 1942 to go to Charleston, S.C., to go to work in a navy yard,” he said.
World War II was underway, and Knight came from a U.S. Navy household. His father had served in the Army in World War I but went into the Naval Reserve after that war. At age 51, he was called up after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two brothers served in the Navy as well.
In South Carolina, Knight worked as a boilermaker’s apprentice, laboring on destroyers being built as part of the war effort.
“After about a year,” he said, “I decided I loved those destroyers we were working on and building, and I went and joined the Navy.”
His first assignment after training was the U.S.S. Nelson, a four-gun destroyer. It had been scheduled for duty as part of the D-Day armada, but a fouled propeller delayed it for a few days.
On June 10, 1944, the Nelson was back in service, anchored off a radar ship off the coast of Normandy.
“About one o’clock on the morning of the 10th, we encountered five U-boats coming at us on radar,” said Knight. “We opened fire on them, and one of them got through.”
A submarine’s torpedo struck the Nelson, knocking about 35 feet off the ship and forcing the crew to evacuate.
“They towed it back to England,” he said.
A brief hiatus followed before Knight was assigned to a new ship, the U.S.S. Compton, which made its way through the Panama Canal to the Pacific where it would provide support for the invasion of Okinawa and — following the war’s end — play a supporting role during the occupation of Japan.
It was during the occupation period that Knight visited Hiroshima. He was part of a group that was ordered to walk through the ruins as a test of residual radiation after the atomic bomb explosion.
While he was in Hiroshima, he met a young Catholic priest who made a strong impression on him.
“My dream was to go back to Japan as a missionary,” said Knight.
But without a high school diploma, let alone a college degree, the chances of that were slim.
Discharged in 1946, Knight soon found work as a stationary engineer, using the skills he’d developed in the Navy, working at a hospital, a school and a library over a period of years.
But the dream never left him.
“I still wanted to go back to Japan,” he said.
That meant returning to his old high school and enrolling as a student in hopes of completing his education.
“I lasted a whole week,” he laughed. “It was the same boring nonsense.”
The Veterans Administration offered an alternative: The GED.
The test was five hours a day for three days, but at the end Knight had his diploma. A stint at Atlantic Christian College followed. He finished his bachelor’s degree in three years, graduating in 1953. A master’s degree from Butler School of Religion, now Christian Theological Seminary, in Indianapolis followed.
Finally, it looked as if he was on his way to a career as a missionary.
“But the mission board said no on Japan,” said Knight.
A quirk in his hearing made it virtually impossible to learn to speak a foreign language, and a tonal language such as Japanese was out of the question.
The same hearing problem affects his ability to hear music.
“I sing ‘also,’” he joked, rather than alto.
With Japan out of the question, the mission board suggested an opening in South Africa. Knight jumped at it, but soon found himself at odds with the South African government’s policy of apartheid.
“I argued with them about their apartheid. I was in constant difficulty with the local police. … There was a lot of fear in South Africa because of the apartheid,” he recalled.
More than once, he found himself in conflict with officials.
“I enjoyed my ministry, but I was a terrible missionary,” Knight said. He lasted just short of two years. “I was heartsick. I felt like I had blown everything.”
Back in the States, he soon found himself needed by churches.
“I started to enjoy pulpit ministry more than I ever thought I would,” he said.
Half a dozen churches later, he was ready to retire. He was in his 50s, and his first marriage had ended. Before he knew it, he found himself thinking of a young woman from Portland he’d met when he was serving a church in Union City.
“We started seeing each other,” said Knight. “She’s a lot younger than I am.”
In fact, his wife Carol (Green) Knight is 24 years his junior. But her family was accepting and so was Carol’s home church, First Presbyterian in Portland.
“We came up here in ’91,” he said. “Here I was accepted by a family and that was expanded to the community. She respected me, and they respected her.”
These days, Knight serves as an adjunct pastor to First Presbyterian, though because of his ordination in the Disciples of Christ he isn’t formally a member of the church.
“I’ve done a lot of pastoral work here,” said Knight. “The situation’s been real good.”