BUCKHANNON — Through 34 years of teaching music, his role as an elected councilman and mayor and his founding of the local theater group, the late James “Jim” Knorr III touched countless lives.
Knorr passed away Friday at the age of 79, leaving a legacy of instilling confidence in young performers, advocating for the youth of the community with Stockert Youth and Community Center and supporting the arts.
Ryan Whited, a former student who now lives in the Washington, D.C. area, began accompanying Knorr’s choirs as a freshman in high school, something he continued through his 1990 high school graduation, into college and Buckhannon Community Theatre performances and even into adulthood when he returned for many years to accompany the holiday alumni concert.
When Whited remembers Knorr, he will think of, “a man who was so talented as a performer, a director, as a leader of many different kinds of choir from concert choir to show choir.
“He really was dedicated to always performing at a high standard, always developing the students and getting the best out of them,” Whited said. “He certainly made me a better musician and really made us better people through trying to achieve something together.
“We all feel so fortunate to be associated with him and to have shared in his talent and to have been made better by his talent and dedication to his students.”
Through Knorr’s help, Whited even accompanied the All-State Choir one year.
“Jim had many of his students who went to the All-State Choir,” he said. “It was a big accomplishment.”
Whited continues his interest in music to this day, something he credits to Knorr.
“He really did so much for Buckhannon and for his students,” Whited said. “He had roots as a theater performer and musician. It was rare to have somebody that talented that was also an excellent teacher and choir director and he really imparted a lot of wisdom and talent on his students and helped a lot of people in that way.”
Jeremiah Smallridge now teaches choir in the very room Knorr taught him in at Buckhannon-Upshur High School.
“I was pretty shy, and he was very encouraging and was the one that helped me find music,” Smallridge said. “He encouraged me to continue with it once I graduated. The year he retired was the year I graduated (1999) and we left together.”
In Knorr’s class, Smallridge gained confidence and learned from Knorr’s leadership.
“He was a lot of fun and made it very exciting, but he also set a good example of having a strong work ethic,” Smallridge said. “He was passionate about what he did, and I think we all responded to that very well.”
Knorr led Smallridge to pursue music education for a career and after teaching at the elementary level, Smallridge is now at the high school.
“I’m very humbled,” Smallridge said. “I keep a lot of the same traditions that he had. We do the annual alumni concert every year at Christmas and we are looking at Dec. 15 this year.”
“We have students making it into all-state choir and doing the plays. We are just carrying the mantle and trying to live up to what the choir was.”
Last year, Smallridge’s choir obtained the state honor choir status, something that the choir was very proud of and a tribute to Knorr’s choirs years ago.
“He had that status for many years and, in fact, he was the reason they changed the rules, so you can’t hold the state honor choir title in consecutive years,” Smallridge said.
Even after graduating high school, Smallridge said Knorr still played a role in his life.
“He would come to my recitals and recruited me to sing in his church choir,” Smallridge said. “He was very supportive of my college career and into my teaching career. I think I will remember the passion more than anything. His passion and his work ethic still inspire me to this day. I just hope that we are continuing a legacy that he can be proud of.”
Smallridge also performed with Knorr in BCT productions – a group that Knorr founded in 1971.
BCT executive producer, Erika Kolenich, said, “BCT is quite an organization. It certainly would not be that way had it not been for him. There are generations of people that are involved with BCT that remember working with him.”
Knorr sought to bring a diverse set of people together for his casts and that is something that BCT still does today with a variety of shows including both children and adults from a wide range of backgrounds.
“It sounds cheesy but BCT is like a place of happiness,” she said. “I think everyone who gets involved for the most part loves it. It really creates a sense of family.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of different theater companies and this is probably the only one that I really feel like these people are my family. I think that’s because of the values that Jim instilled in the organization early on.”
Knorr’s legacy in the BCT will be remembered by the people who knew and worked with him and by the award established in his honor this past summer.
“There is really not a show that passes or a meeting we have that someone doesn’t have something positive to say about him or a memory to share about how he touched their life in some way,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever met or known someone who had that much of an effect on so many people that they still feel compelled to talk about him.”
Over the summer, BCT presented the first Jim Knorr Award named in his honor to another long-time BCT member, Keith Buchanan.
“That was really important to us because as his health declined and he became less involved, we certainly wanted to keep his spirit alive,” she said. “I’m glad we had the chance to do that and his family had the chance to share the moment before he passed.”
Buchanan met Knorr through BCT. Knorr and Buchanan’s future wife, Chris, were both acting in a BCT performance of “Dark of the Moon.”
His friend Chester Cutright urged Buchanan to come see the show and attend a cast party afterwards.
It was at the urging of Knorr and Chris that Buchanan joined BCT.
“I was always a performer, but I was in a band,” he said. “Getting up on stage and reciting lines wasn’t something I felt I was geared to. My wife and Jim encouraged me, and I gave it a try.
“What Jim did was to coax me into a production of ‘You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.’ He suggested acting like a kid might be easy. There were a lot of other adults in the cast and I took it on as a hoot. From that moment, I got hooked.”
The Buchanans were in numerous productions after that but Buchanan recalls fondly the “Night on Broadway” shows which allowed performers to pick their favorite tunes.
“It was a variety show,” he said. “I really think Jim enjoyed those. There was a rendition of ‘Paint Your Wagon’ with everyone singing and laughing and having a great time, totally stress free. Those are the moments when I think he enjoyed himself the most.”
Buchanan said one of his favorite times was a performance in which he appeared as Biggy, the alter ego/big cousin of Knorr’s ventriloquist figure Iggy.
“I think it was the last public performance of Iggy he ever did and that makes it special for me personally,” Buchanan said.
He added that Knorr was relentless in pushing BCT to do new things and to appeal to a broader audience – from trying out new intimate venues in town to doing reader’s theater.
“That was what Jim wanted,” Buchanan said. “Do the unusual, broaden your reach, bring different people in that might not normally get into that type of production.”
BCT is one of Knorr’s biggest legacies, according to Buchanan.
“It’s not only surviving but it’s thriving and impacting more people than ever before,” he said.
Buchanan also feels that Knorr’s wife, Judy, played an important role.
“Jim Knorr was the maestro but behind Jim Knorr was Judy Knorr,” he said. “Judy was the organizer, Jim was the creative guy. Judy was the rock and kept everything together.”
Jim and Judy Knorr were married by Knorr’s father in Parkersburg.
Judy shared the story of how Iggy, the figure her husband used to delight audiences, came to be.
“Jim’s father was a minister and he always used magic for his object lessons,” Judy said. “Jim would often accompany his dad to the Golden Gate Magic Studio on Market Street in San Francisco.
A ventriloquist came often, and Knorr began taking lessons at the studio.
When Knorr shared the story, Judy said he always threw the line in that he was practicing ventriloquism instead of learning to play the piano.
“They had a figure there in the shop and they let Jim take the figure home to practice with. Jim named him Iggy — short for Ignoramus.
“The reason is it’s very easy to say without moving your lips,” she said.
“Jim said that Christmas morning they went down to open their presents and low and behold, there in a box, there was Iggy.
“It’s uncanny the resemblance of that figure to Jim, especially when he was in junior high when he got Iggy,” Knorr said.
The Knorr family moved often with their minister father and Iggy became the way for Knorr to open doors and become a part of a new community.
Later at WVWC, Knorr took Iggy on road trips to entertain potential students.
Iggy was always a part of the Knorr family. Judy recalled putting Iggy somewhere before they went on vacation one time and then the panic when they could not find him when they returned.
“Here I am looking for a member of the family,” she said. “I could not find this figure.”
Eventually, Iggy was discovered safely tucked away.
Judy said her husband loved ventriloquism – even if he didn’t have Iggy with him, he would enjoy talking to looking kids and making a cup or other object talk.
Knorr enjoyed teaching others how to use Iggy to entertain.
“Jim really enjoyed using his skills like that to engage students, kids, anybody,” she said. “He knew he could fool some adults at times.”
In later years, Knorr moved into politics, first being elected to city council in 1996 and then as mayor in 2002.
Then city recorder Nancy Shobe said she became acquainted with Knorr when he was elected to the council seat.
“When Binky passed away, I filled in for 22 months as mayor. He came to me and asked if I was going to run. I told him ’no, for him to go ahead and run.”
Knorr won the mayoral election and served two terms as mayor.
“He took the job seriously,” Shoba said. “He really looked out for the city employees. He knew without the city employees he was really nothing. I really appreciated that.”
Shobe recently came across a handwritten note from Knorr in which he had thanked her for her hard work and dedication and “officially appointed her as acting mayor” while he was on a three-week vacation.
“I got a chuckle out of it,” she said.
“He and I worked really closely together, and I came to know his entire family. What I liked about Jim is that there was no pretention about him. He didn’t pretend to be somebody he wasn’t.”
Shobe also said that Knorr was a strong supporter of the B&O tax with the idea that it would support Stockert Youth Center.
“We didn’t know if we would ever be elected again for an office, but we were doing what we thought the best for the kids of the community,” she said. “Not only did he serve the kids through education but in his role as mayor, he continued to serve the kids by helping the city take over Stockert.
Mayor David McCauley was city attorney during Knorr’s tenure on city council.
“I would say Jim’s biggest legacy was that as mayor he agreed that the city needed to prevent the closure of Stockert Youth Center and work with the county to ensure that transition and ownership from the county to the city,” he said.
“Jim was always a huge supporter of the arts, no matter what the activities were. He was very softhearted when it came to little kids.”
After Knorr’s term as mayor ended, McCauley said a picnic area was dedicated at the Riverwalk for him.
Councilman Dave Thomas served on city council when Knorr was mayor.
“I just appreciate that Jim served the community,” Thomas said. “He wanted to help the city. He loved Buckhannon and so does Judy. He had a love for the community and was a good ambassador in a lot of ways. My prayers and thoughts are with the family.”
Arrangements for Knorr are being handled by Poling-St. Clair Funeral Home.
The visitation will be Friday, Oct. 26 from 4-8 p.m. at the funeral home and the service will follow Saturday, Oct. 27 at 11 a.m. at First United Methodist Church.
Former students of Knorr are arranging a group singing of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” outside the funeral home Friday at 5:30 p.m., according to a post being shared on Facebook.