Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Joseph Webb McKnight, 1925-2015

We have received sad news: Joseph Webb McKnight, Professor Emeritus of Law and Larry and Jane Harlan Faculty Fellow Emeritus at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, passed away on November 30, 2015. SMU has released the following:
Professor McKnight inspired many through his historic contributions to the development of family and matrimonial property law in Texas, as well as his scholarship on legal history.  He was a prolific scholar, authoring over 100 articles and several books.  He held leadership positions in a number of legal and historical organizations, directed the Texas Family Code project, and was a principal drafter of several important Texas laws addressing matrimonial property matters, including the property rights of married women in Texas.  In the words of one colleague, Joe McKnight is legal history.

“We lost our patron saint, our living link to the very beginning of modern family law in Texas,” said Brian L. Webb, adjunct professor at SMU Dedman School of Law and attorney with Webb Family Law Firm, P.C. “He was a great friend to all and proud to be a family lawyer.”

After a short stint practicing law with Cravath Swaine & Moore in New York City, he joined the faculty of the SMU School of Law in 1955, where he taught for the following 59 years.  While a dedicated scholar and advocate for legal reform, his true love was for teaching and law students, with many of the latter remaining life-long colleagues and friends.  Professor McKnight and his wife, Mildred Payne McKnight, were known to entertain a tremendous number of law students, faculty, scholars and friends in their Dallas home and, during many summers, in their house in Oxford.

During the past six decades, Professor McKnight established an invaluable collection of more than 6,000 rare legal history books at SMU Dedman Law – one of the largest of its kind in the nation with the oldest book in the collection printed in 1481. He studied bookbinding and book conservation at the Dallas Craft Guild for more than twenty years, so he could restore his cherished antiquarian volumes to the best possible condition. In December 2011, he donated his extraordinary collection to the law school, which is prominently housed in SMU Dedman law’s Underwood Law Library.

“Joe McKnight was a truly remarkable teacher and scholar and a wonderfully kind and generous colleague,” said Jennifer M. Collins, Judge James Noel Dean and Professor of Law at SMU Dedman School of Law.  “Throughout his distinguished academic career, he was an inspiration to all who knew him.  He will be greatly missed.”

He was born on February 17, 1925 in San Angelo, Texas, where he was raised during some of the most severe years of the Great Depression.  Notwithstanding the tough times, he loved San Angelo and he and his four siblings returned there often and spoke proudly of their West Texas roots.

He excelled academically at an early age and graduated at the top of his high school class at the age of 16.  After completing several years at the University of Texas, where he was a member of Sigma Chi fraternity, he enlisted in the Navy and served during and in the aftermath of World War II.  After returning to his studies at the University of Texas, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and in 1947 entered Magdalen College at Oxford University.  His Oxford years were formative, and he earned the degrees of Bachelor of Arts in Jurisprudence, a Bachelor of Civil Law, and a Master of Arts.  He also received an LL.M. from Columbia University.

The Professor was preceded in death by his parents and siblings, as well as his first wife, Julia Ann Dyer McKnight.   He is survived by his second wife, Mildred Payne McKnight, his sons John B. McKnight and J. Adair McKnight, his step-children, Sawnie R. Aldredge III and Amy P. Aldredge, and numerous grandchildren.

A mass of Christian burial will be held at the Church of The Holy Cross Dallas, 4052 Herschel Avenue (at Douglas) at 10:00 am on Friday, December 4, 2015.  In lieu of flowers, donations are requested in Professor McKnight’s honor either to the Joseph P. McKnight Memorial Scholarship Fund (named in honor of Professor McKnight's Great Grandfather) at the SMU Dedman School of Law, or to the Church of The Holy Cross Dallas.
We expect that there are more tributes and remembrances to come. We will update you accordingly.