Obituary: Charles Knight, major benefactor, former trustee, 81

Charles Knight

Emerson Chairman Emeritus Charles F. Knight, a major benefactor of Washington University in St. Louis and longtime member of its Board of Trustees, died Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. He was 81.

Knight, who was chief executive officer at Emerson Electric Co. for 27 years, helped shape the present-day Washington University, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

“Chuck Knight was a loyal and dedicated friend of Washington University for more than 40 years. His extraordinary generosity, support and vision can be felt and seen throughout our campuses,” Wrighton said.

“He, along with his wife, Joanne, showed an unwavering commitment to advancing the university as well as the St. Louis community. Whether through helping establish Olin Business School as one of the premier institutions of business education and research in the world, or his critical support in building the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center into the country’s third-largest cancer center, Chuck was dedicated to supporting institutions that improve lives and advance knowledge.

“Chuck and Joanne were also instrumental in strengthening our research programs related to Alzheimer’s disease. Sadly, near the end of his life, he suffered himself from Alzheimer’s disease. He was a great business leader, an outstanding trustee of the university and a personal friend. His leadership in our community is deeply missed,” Wrighton said.

Knight was a member of Washington University’s Board of Trustees from 1977 to 1990, a pivotal growth period in the university’s history.

In 2001, thanks to a combined gift from the Knights and Emerson, Olin Business School realized one of its major objectives, which was to build a first-class, residential executive education center.

The Charles F. Knight Executive Education Center on the Danforth Campus is a state-of-the-art, five-story facility that includes conference rooms, classrooms equipped with sophisticated technology, guest rooms, dining areas and a business center.

The Knights also endowed the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Distinguished Directorship in Executive Education to provide leadership for the center.

Charles Knight
Charles F. Knight (center) at the May 7, 2012, groundbreaking ceremony for the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Hall speaking with Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton (left) and Mahendra R. Gupta, then dean of Olin Business School.

The Charles F. and Joanne Knight Hall, which is adjacent to the Knight Executive Education Center, is part of a $90 million, 177,000-square-foot expansion project that includes the George and Carol Bauer Hall. When Knight and Bauer halls opened in 2014, the Olin Business School’s footprint more than doubled.

Olin’s rise as a top business school was guided by its National Council, of which Knight was a founding member and former chair. He also was chair of the Business Task Force, an advisory group that preceded the National Council.

Two major fundraising campaigns, the Alliance for Washington University and The Campaign for Washington University, relied heavily on Knight’s leadership.

A deep commitment to supporting medical research drove his support for Washington University’s School of Medicine, where he had served on its National Council.

He and his wife established the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Distinguished Professorship in Orthopaedic Surgery, providing top-level teaching and research in this growing area.

The Joanne Knight Breast Health Center and Breast Cancer Program were dedicated in April 2007 in appreciation of the generosity and leadership of the Knights in supporting advancements in breast cancer research, patient care and community outreach at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the School of Medicine.

The Knights, longtime leaders in supporting Alzheimer’s disease research, made a major commitment to the School of Medicine to advance Alzheimer’s research. The university recognized the couple in 2010 by naming its world-renowned Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in their honor.

He served in a number of leadership capacities for Barnes Hospital, overseeing the creation of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and helping engineer the formation of BJC Health System, now known as BJC HealthCare.

He served as board chairman of the BJC System in the 1990s and was named emeritus chairman for life of Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

In 2002, Barnes-Jewish Hospital opened the Charles F. Knight Emergency and Trauma Center, a 52,000-square-foot facility offering 61 beds and a comprehensive environment for specialized care.

‘Winning results’

Knight began his tenure as CEO of Emerson in 1973. At the time, he was the youngest CEO of any U.S. billion-dollar company; he became chairman in 1974.

Under his leadership, Emerson evolved from a domestic manufacturer to a leading global technology and solutions provider, as sales increased more than 16-fold.

He stepped down as CEO in 2000 and retired as chairman in 2004.

Knight’s management success was recognized widely in major business publications. He was named Chief Executive of the Year by Chief Executive magazine.

He was a member of the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame.

His book, “Performance Without Compromise: How Emerson Consistently Achieves Winning Results,” was published in 2005. After his retirement, he taught a popular master’s of business administration class at the university.

Knight’s generosity and support of the university were recognized with, among other honors, the Olin Dean’s Medal in 1993, an honorary doctor of science degree in 1996, the Robert S. Brookings Award in 1999 and the Eliot Society Search Award in 2007.

His philanthropic involvement extended throughout the St. Louis region, and he was particularly supportive of higher education, health care and youth-oriented organizations, including St. Louis Public Schools, the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club and the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.

Knight earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA from Cornell University.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by children Lester Knight of Chicago, Anne Knight Davidson of St. Louis, Steven Knight of Seattle and Jennifer Knight Beckmann of Chicago; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorials to the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University School of Medicine.

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