Cleaver Managing Editor
With great sadness our historical community learned of the passing of Robert Knapp last week. In addition to his local historical contributions, Robert was a great friend.
Robert wasn’t like the rest of us armchair historians in the Clare County Historical Society fueled by our passions, interests and whatever skill set our careers brought to the table as judge, writer, librarian, teacher, or history lover. Robert was a true scholar and historian. He attended Central Michigan University and then earned his Ph.D. in Ancient History at the University of Pennsylvania. Robert retired in 2006 from his position as a professor in the classics department at the University of California-Berkeley.
Robert lived full time in Oakland, California, with his wife, Carolyn, and they made frequent trips around the world and to Michigan. The historic Bell/Knapp family cabin in Sheridan Township was their base here in Clare County.
"The Clare County Historical Society has lost a good friend, a valuable resource, a wonderful writer and a generous benefactor. Robert knew more about local history than anyone I've met – everything from lumberjacks to gangsters – and he was always willing to share his knowledge. His many financial contributions benefitted not only our group, but the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan, local libraries, non-profit organizations and more. We will miss him, but we're blessed that he will live on in his books and his contributions that bettered our community," said Marty Johnson of the Clare County Historical Society.
Jon Ringelberg, also of the Clare County Historical Society worked closely with Robert on many projects. Five or six CCHS friends including myself, had an ongoing email group that was part historical research help and discussion and part good-natured historical fun.
“A tremendous loss. His inquisitive and inquiring mind matched his research abilities. He knew historical downtown Clare better than most anyone and was the ‘go to’ person as to its past buildings and their locations,” said Ringelberg.
His local titles include Clare 1865-1940 (2012), Community of Learning History and Memories. The Laboratory School Central Michigan University 1895-1970 (2021), Gangsters Up North: Mobsters, Mafia, and Racketeers in Michigan's Vacationlands (2020), Small-Town Citizen Minion of the Mob. Sam Garfield's Two Lives – Purple Gangsters, Meyer Lansky, and Life in Clare Michigan (2018), Mystery Man. Gangsters, Oil, and Murder in Michigan (2014).
His academic titles are too numerous to mention here and include titles such as The Dawn of Christianity. People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles (2017) and Invisible Romans (2013). His work has been translated into several languages for publication.
His greatest strength locally and in Michigan was examining what he called “the truths, myths, and downright fabrications” of his subjects, like the gangster activity of the 1930s.
He wrote honestly and factually about Clare residents like Sam Garfield. Garfield and his wife, Ruby, were beloved citizens of Clare, but he was also closely affiliated with major gangsters such as members of the Purple Gang, Moe Dalitz’ Cleveland Syndicate and, most of all, mobster Meyer Lansky.
His book Clare: 1865-1940 in the Arcadia Images of American series inspired me to write the Harrison (2014) and Farwell (2016) titles for the same publisher.
Robert took a particular interest in Clare County newspapers. Newspapers are an excellent source of information and a firsthand account of history. Robert established an endowment fund at the Clarke Historical Library at CMU to digitize Clare County newspapers and the county is nearing an as complete as possible newspaper digitization due to his efforts.
The earlier mentioned Bell/Knapp cabin dates to 1888 and was built by Robert’s great-grandfather. The cabin will soon be donated to the historical society and moved to the museum park complex at Dover Road and Eberhart Avenue. Robert has left to the historical society a generous donation to move and care for the cabin. While he was raised in Mount Pleasant, his roots were tied closely to his pioneer family in Clare County.
Writing about Robert’s historical contributions, education, non-profit work, awards, and his accomplishments both locally, personally and in his field, would be a book itself. In 2012, his alma mater Central Michigan University named him the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.
Clare County is forever indebted to Robert Knapp for his work in discovering and preserving local history. Clare County is forever indebted to Robert Knapp for his work in discovering and preserving local history. Sheila Bissonnette, director of Pere Marquette and Harrison District Libraries, offered the following recollection:
“Robert’s passing is a loss to us all. He was dedicated to preserving our local history. His financial support of an endowment fund at the Clarke Historical Library is the reason our local newspapers are digitized and online. He valued having access to local newspapers, not only for his research, but for others interested in learning more about their family stories. He was also a dear friend, and will be greatly missed.”
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