What do you remember best about Gene Knapp? A myriad of things come to people’s mind: his success as an attorney, his passion for land use issues, his involvement with the Land Bank and San Juan County Council. But overwhelmingly it was his calming disposition that set him apart. Gene passed away at his home on Orcas Island Oct. 18 after an extended illness.
“One thing I learned from him after time is listening very carefully to people and making sure you treat them with respect and dignity. Those are very important things,” said Charles Silverman, who served as San Juan County prosecuting attorney criminal deputy under Gene. “Sometimes lawyers jump up and down and never stop talking, I know I’m that way. And that wasn’t Gene, He would listen, contemplate, and then say something.”
Gene and his wife Tish Knapp arrived to the islands from Seattle to live full time in 1979 on Orcas Island, though Gene had owned a farm there since 1966. Gene accepted a position as San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney in 1980, making Silverman his deputy.
“I was a kid who came from New Jersey and everything is black and white and you meet someone like Gene and realize it has nothing to do with you,” Silverman said. “It’s your responsibility to work with the community and keeping your mouth shut sometimes to hear what they have to say,”
Tish recalls that shortly after Gene accepted the position, a slew of murders rang through the county, including the memorable Rolf Neslund case that Gene’s office won, despite the absence of a body as evidence. But, Tish said, Gene was most interested in land use issues, and helping to guide the county in proper zoning and comprehensive use plans to preserve the islands.
“The fact that this place is still beautiful and hasn’t been developed in the wrong way is so hugely a part of his work,” Tish said.
Tish tells the story about how the two first met, on a cruise in the Caribbean. Tish was with two friends that she describes as gorgeous.
“And he walked right past those women to me. I thought Santa Claus had just dropped him down my chimney. Either we were in love or we were seasick, we didn’t know which,” Tish said laughing.
After the days on the cruise and a visit to the Pacific Northwest, Tish stayed for good, building a family with their children from previous marriages and their own.
“He was so real and unaffected, and had integrity,” Tish said. “I lived with this man and his integrity was unquestionable. He was so truthful and he dealt with people so much like that. I’ve never met anybody who was so much like that than Gene.”
Gene served as prosecuting attorney from 1979-1986, and then continued at a private practice in Mt. Vernon and Bellingham, commuting to the islands daily.
“I never heard one word of complaint from him about that. He considered that work time, those two hours on the ferry,” Tish said, recalling that he would give legal advice at those times, or simply catch up with all the people he knew on the ferry. “He was not a talker, I’m the talker. But he was a wonderful listener. He wouldn’t say anything or make judgement but just clear his throat and it would be so dang good. He really was a wise man.”
Karen Vedder worked with Gene for 12 years at Lane Powell in Mt. Vernon, and was mentored by Gene and eventually becoming a lawyer under his tutelage.
“He had a powerful presence. He was a quiet guy. He would sit through most of what could be a very lively discussion, but then when he spoke all heads turned towards him,” Vedder said. “He didn’t like to think of litigation as a fight but as problem solving, and that’s how he approached conflict.”
Vedder recalls Gene’s ability to make his peers feel valued and important, even if they were on conflicting sides.
Dean Brett, who worked with Gene during his time at the law firm Brett & Daugert in Bellingham, initially met Gene on opposite sides of the court room aisle, Brett representing the plaintiff and Gene as the defense attorney. Brett liked him so much that they ended up working at the firm together.
“He was a great lawyer because he was a great person. He was so interested in people, and great with people,” Brett said, remembering him for his absolute honesty and integrity.
Brett also recalls the farm and the menagerie of animals the Knapp’s kept, from the regular ducks, dogs and donkeys to the stranger emus, ostriches, wallabies and two llamas named Obama Llama and Dalai Llama.
One time Brett was passing by their bedroom and saw a baby pen set up. He mentioned it to Gene, and asked if it was for grandchildren. Gene replied that no, it was where the baby wallaby slept at night.
Randall Gaylord also remembers the animals, as after Gene’s guidance in becoming San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney in 1992, he eventually became his neighbor in 1996 on Buckthorn Road.
“Gene is one of those people who has been hugely influential in my life,” Gaylord said. “Right behind my wife, mom and my dad. Particularly in a my professional life.”
With Gene’s assistance, Gaylord brought back Charles Silverman and Karen Vedder to work for him.
“Gene gave me the opportunity to rebuild the office that he left behind, and it’s served the county well for many, many years. I like to think that Gene’s influence still carries on in this office,” Gaylord said. “He was a very tall man, but never spoke down to anyone. He never spoke badly about anybody or complained about losing a vote or an idea. He was extraordinarily civil, and a real gentleman.”
Gene also served as a board member to the Land Bank for ten years, two of which he was chairman. He served on the board of Orcas Medical Center and the Orcas Center. In 2005, he was elected Freeholder, and worked on a charter for San Juan County. In 2006 he was elected to San Juan County Council, serving until 2011.
No date has been given for a memorial service, but the Knapp family believes it may be at the end of November. Watch the Journal for more information. To submit a short 150 word remembrance of Gene, email firstname.lastname@example.org and it will be posted on our website.