Glenn Knecht, who guided the evolution of this distinguished college town into an attractive community for blue-collar families over more than a decade as mayor of Crawfordsville, died on Monday. He was 85.
Knecht died at Franciscan Health Lafayette East, according to Sanders Priebe Funeral Care, which is handling the funeral arrangements. The cause wasn’t immediately known. Memorial services were pending.
The three-term Democrat — who first took office in 1976 after four years on the city council and a long tenure as a teacher and coach — set the stage for the development of Crawfordsville’s north side and transformed the east end into an industrial corridor, extending an invitation to out-of-town business executives who were charmed by the city’s expanding golf course.
“I’m proud of the independence of this community. We don’t depend on anybody else,” Knecht said in a television interview in 1986. “We’ve got a lot of pride and a lot of diversity in our industry, which helps us be an independent community.”
When Knecht first announced plans to run for mayor, his platform included expanding the sewage treatment plant to solve overload issues and starting a countywide ambulance service. He cited the need for a stronger local two-party political system. He became the first Democratic mayor to be elected in 20 years. (Since then, just two other Democrats have held the seat — John Zumer from 2004-2007 followed by Charlie Coons from 2007-2012).
“It was hard for a Democrat to win in this community and I think because of all the lives he touches as a football coach, that helped him when he ran for mayor,” said Rita Hamm, who served as parks and recreation director for five mayors, including Knecht.
Along with building on to the sewage plant, the Knecht administration also oversaw the expansion of the city’s airport to accommodate small jets and undertook street improvements — all despite inflation and a statewide tax freeze.
Later, the city extended utilities northward along U.S. 231, paving the way for hotels, restaurants and other businesses in the Interstate 74 corridor before developers focused attention on the city’s south side. With the northern expansion came the vision for an industrial park, which didn’t gain substantial traction until Mayor Todd Barton’s administration more than 30 years later.
“He was a strong leader with the ability to get things done and make good things happen,” Barton said in a statement. “He led Crawfordsville through a time of substantial growth and development and his successes laid the groundwork for the vibrant community we know today.”
During his tenure, Knecht pushed for more industries to invest in the city, luring companies like Inland Container and Pace Dairy to open new factories.
“He was just a hard worker and really cared about the community. I don’t know anyone who had a bigger heart than him,” Hamm said.
When the nine-hole golf course was being expanded to 18-holes, there was only enough money for three holes at a time, Hamm said, recalling the unconventional construction method.
Knecht also secured the land for the Elston Softball Fields. Hamm said Crawfordsville Electric Light & Power initially didn’t approve of the use of the land near their generating plant — despite it belonging to the city — and complained to the mayor, who was known for being matter-of-fact.
“And he said, ‘Pardon me. Tell me how that’s titled?’” Hamm said.
Knecht mounted a fourth bid for office in 1987, looking to surpass Thomas Cooksey’s 14 year (non-consecutive) run as the city’s longest-serving mayor. Republican Phil Michal, a longtime veterinarian, defeated Knecht, who he blamed for failing to respond to factory layoffs and the decline of Boulevard Mall, according to the Journal Review’s coverage of a candidate’s debate.
“Phil came in and did a super job, but I think Glenn took that pretty hard at first,” Hamm said.
Another attempt returning to the mayor’s office failed in 1992.
Glenn Jerome Knecht was born in Cincinnati, to Robert, a supervisor at the Federal Reserve Bank, and Marguerite Knecht. He was the youngest of three sons. In 1955, he married Gretchen Bohman, and the couple had five children.
After playing football at Purdue University, where he graduated in 1955, Knecht taught at Lowell and Anderson schools. The family moved to Crawfordsville in 1959, where he spent the next 16 years teaching mathematics, physical education and driver’s training.
“He expected the students to learn and there were no ifs ands or buts about it, I don’t think,” said longtime science teacher Bill Richmond.
As a coach, Knecht’s football team went undefeated one season and he was the school’s first football coach to win 100 games. Knecht would drive past his players’ houses on the night before a match-up, checking that the players weren’t away cruising with friends.
“He had kind of laid the groundwork for someone who wanted to come in and do the right job and have success,” Rick Schavietello, another longtime Crawfordsville head football coach, said.
Knecht also coached track and field, leading his teams to two conference championships and a sectional championship.
“He was our coach and our teacher. He was a lot of things to a lot of people,” Coons said.