Meredith College and First Baptist Church collaborated on a memorial service for legendary Professor of English Ione Kemp Knight, who passed away on January 4, 2020, at the age of 97. The service was held on February 22 at First Baptist Church.
At the service, Meredith President Jo Allen, ’80, Vice President for College Programs Jean Jackson, ’75, and Professor Emerita Betty Webb, ’67, who were all English majors at Meredith, helped eulogize Knight. Professor of English Eloise Grathwohl did a reading in Old English of some of Knight’s favorite passages.
Knight, who graduated from Meredith in 1943 with bachelor’s degrees in English and mathematics before earning a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill, joined Meredith’s English faculty in 1956. She became one of the “Big Three” of legendary English professors alongside Mary Lynch Johnson and Norma Rose.
Allen called Knight, who retired in 1993, a Meredith College icon. “She touched so many lives – English majors and the general student population – and challenged us to learn, learn, learn.”
Knight delivered Meredith’s Faculty Distinguished Lecture in 1984. In an article about the speech, the student newspaper said Knight “[found] joy in seeing young women grow in skills and maturity, as they seek an education upon which they can build a profession.”
Among those whose lives were changed by Knight’s influence are many who followed in her footsteps as faculty members in Meredith’s English Department.
Webb knew Knight both as a student and as an English faculty member.
“The world is less bright without Ione. She brought out the best in all of us,” Webb said. “I take consolation in the fact that her unblinking blue eyes will continue to make all of us who fell under her thrall square our shoulders, stand up straighter, suppress public yawns, never say OK (without feeling guilty), and be better people than we would have been had we not known and loved her.”
Professor of English Robin Colby, ’81, called Knight the epitome of a scholar and a teacher.
“Dr. Knight modelled for many generations of students what a life dedicated to learning looks like. At the same time, she wore her learning lightly. It was not unusual for her to explain in casual conversation the Anglo-Saxon root of a word we all use every day,” Colby said. “She somehow managed to set the bar high – very high – and to convey to her students that they were capable of scaling it. She also remained open to new ideas, showing a genuine interest in what we saw in a poem that she had read many times and indeed knew by heart. I can still see her bright blue eyes flash as she paused over a line of poetry that she loved. Sitting in class with her was a privilege that I will always treasure.”
Knight was known as a challenging instructor who expected much from her students. In 1990, Knight was named the Mary Lynch Johnson Chair of English, which was Meredith’s first endowed faculty position. Webb served as head of the English department at the time, and presented the honor to Knight.
“What we all knew then [as students] about Dr. Knight was that she expected no more of us than she did of herself,” Webb said during the presentation. “What we came to understand later was that she loved us just as much as we loved her and that the invitation to excellence that she constantly extended to us was, in fact, an act of love.”
At the time of Knight’s retirement, alumnae sent notes that echoed this sentiment, saying Knight “taught them how to study, taught them self-discipline, and taught them what they needed in order to go on educating themselves.”
After her retirement, Knight continued her involvement with Meredith by offering community enrichment classes. She was also a major donor, actively involved in the establishment of the Alumnae Legacy Scholarship, which is Meredith’s first full academic scholarship.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Ione Kemp Knight English Travel Award Endowment, established by friends and colleagues at her retirement. To make a gift in Knight’s memory, visit meredith.edu/give. (Click “Other” for the designation and type in the endowment name in the box.) Checks can be mailed to Meredith College, Attn: Institutional Advancement, 3800 Hillsborough Street, Raleigh, NC 27607.