By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English | Photo Credit: Michelle Garcia/She Breathes Photography
Dr. H. Ray McKnight, a Fresno State professor emeritus of English, passed away on Aug. 5 in Richmond, California. He was 88.
A specialist in Restoration and 18th Century literatures and drama, McKnight taught courses in literature and composition at Fresno State from 1965 to 1997.
In addition to teaching, McKnight was a highly skilled and quietly ambitious administrator at the program level. Decades later, his vision for program development continues to impact dozens of campus faculty, hundreds of area teachers and thousands of students.
Among his many professional contributions, McKnight:
- In 1979 co-founded, with Dr. James Frey, the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project, a network of area K-16 educators who support the teaching and learning of writing in all disciplines.
- In 1980 founded the Young Writers’ Conference, an annual spring event that welcomes over 400 area high school students and their teachers to Fresno State for a day of creative writing.
- In the early 1990s, he coordinated the English Department’s writing committee, which includes the First-Year Writing program and impacts all students on campus across the curriculum.
In addition, McKnight was an early supporter and three-time faculty director of the College of Arts and Humanities’ popular London Semester study abroad program, which began in 1984 with founding director Dr. Lyman Heine.
According to Tanya Nichols, an English instructor who has coordinated the Young Writers’ Conference since 2007, McKnight was “not only a gifted professor, he was a true visionary whose influence surpassed the walls of any classroom.” Nichols said her life, and the lives of so many others, are richer because of McKnight’s work.
In 2020, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Young Writers’ Conference, Nichols established a new Ray McKnight Award, now included among the event’s student prizes. She said his legacy will continue through the award as the English Department continues to recognize the next generation of Fresno writers at the conference.
“It is a privilege to have known Ray McKnight, to consider him a friend,” Nichols said. “He
was thrilled by the addition of the award in his name, and proud to see his handiwork and idealism thriving and growing after more than 40 years.”
Dr. Ruth Jenkins, a professor of English, called McKnight “an anchor” in the English Department — welcoming, kind, supportive, and always willing to listen to ideas and share expertise. In establishing the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project, part of the National Writing Project, she said McKnight devoted countless summer hours to inspiring and learning from local secondary-school educators.
In 2019, at a gathering to mark the 40th anniversary of the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project, McKnight shared memories of the project’s beginnings.
“Ray was committed to teaching, with a deep interest in the literature and his students’ growth,” Jenkins said. “I remember he once told me that a student could have a complete education just by studying Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock.’ His encyclopedic knowledge of the long 18th Century and its literatures offered students that education and more.”
Dr. Laurel Hendrix, a professor of English, said McKnight was a beloved mentor of younger faculty and a remarkable collaborator on campus and in the community. He was a professor, she said, “who wore many hats — with grace, a sly wit, and wisdom.”
“Ray was an invaluable resource when he coordinated the writing program,” Hendrix said. “He was thoroughly versed in departmental and university history and was a tremendous sounding board for me and for other faculty navigating their probationary years.”
Dr. Honora Chapman, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, said McKnight deeply impacted how the English Department educates writers and teachers of writing. She said the college feels fortunate that his daughter, Kate McKnight, carries on his teaching legacy as an instructor in the Department of Theatre and Dance.
“His ability to nurture student writers’ nascent talents as freshmen, and then build their confidence and sense of self through study abroad for an entire semester, shows what a transformative educator and generous person Ray was,” Chapman said.
Haven Ray McKnight was born in 1933 in Charleston, West Virginia. His father, Vaughn McKnight, worked as an independent vendor specializing in commercial building sales. His mother, Gae McKnight, was a homemaker.
His eldest daughter, Kate McKnight, said her father learned early on that just one teacher or mentor could play a key role in a student’s life.
Ray’s key person was a Charleston public librarian named Wilma Brown. As the family story goes, Ms. Brown took an interest and belief in young Ray, encouraging him to keep reading, keep writing. Ms. Brown later encouraged Ray to apply to Harvard, and she wrote him a letter of recommendation.
“He would talk a lot about that encouragement,” Kate McKnight said. “It takes just one person. My dad was a first-generation college student. One librarian got to know him and saw he had a future ahead of him.”
McKnight earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in 18th Century literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
While pursuing his doctorate at Chapel Hill, Ray met Margaret Allman, who was pursuing a master’s degree in English.
According to Kate McKnight, shortly after Ray finished his doctorate, he was offered his first teaching job at the University of Oregon, where he taught from 1960 to 1965. But Marge had left Chapel Hill for New York City, and Ray didn’t want to go out West without her.
With only a street address in hand, Ray traveled to the Big Apple, hoping for a surprise marriage proposal. When he got there, Marge had moved. There was no forwarding address. Despondent, Ray walked into a Rexall drugstore in Marge’s old neighborhood — where they ran into each other by chance.
They married five months later, packed up their belongings in a Volkswagen bug, and moved to Oregon. During their years in Eugene, Ray and Marge had two daughters, Kate and Sarah.
Ray was offered a tenure-track position at Fresno State, and the McKnights relocated to the Central Valley in 1965. Their third daughter Carrie was born two years later, and Marge eventually attended law school and became an appellate attorney.
Their arrival in Fresno came just before the start of campus unrest during the civil rights movement. According to Kate McKnight, Ray and Marge were both strongly opposed to the Vietnam War and directly experienced the anti-war marches in Fresno. Ray watched several of his Fresno State colleagues get fired for their views of the day.
“Watching our parents’ activism was always very much part of our family life,” Kate McKnight said. “They had a strong sense of social justice for people. My dad used to call himself a proud card-carrying member of the ACLU [the American Civil Liberties Union], and he donated for more than 50 years.”
In 2002, with Dr. Harold “Hal” Tokmakian, a Fresno State professor emeritus of city and regional planning, Ray McKnight co-founded the Downtown Fresno Coalition, a group dedicated to the preservation of the Fulton Mall and Eaton Plaza in downtown Fresno.
Kate McKnight later chaired the coalition, working alongside her father to save the pedestrian mall’s unique features and world-class art, originally designed in the 1960s by renowned landscape architect Garrett Eckbo. In December 2015, the Fresno City Council voted to pave over Fulton Mall and return it to Fulton Street.
“Working to save the Fulton Mall was some of my dad’s greatest, most important work,” Kate McKnight said. “Fulton Mall was one of its kind, and it represented Fresno at its best. When the paving happened, it was one of the saddest, most disappointing moments of his life.”
But it was his visionary work with the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project that best defined Ray McKnight’s legacy in Fresno. His connection with secondary-school teachers was something he always treasured.
Kate and sisters Sarah and Carrie all remember their dad leading an SJVWP workshop for writing teachers in the ’90s. He asked participants to create a little autobiographical picture book about themselves that told a story, including drawings and notes on things they liked and disliked. To model the activity, he made his own picture book, too, to prove that it didn’t matter if they were good at drawing and handwriting or not.
In just a few minutes, Ray made a picture book with quirky, funny drawings to illustrate a storyline that declared: Ray McKnight hates kale, and he loves the public library. The roomful of teachers got the biggest kick out of his creation, as did his daughters.
“He’d love to see what teachers would come up with, thinking about themselves in this way,” Kate McKnight said. “It was much more sophisticated than it seemed to reflect on and write and draw one’s life. These things lay foundations for people. To say he was influential is an understatement.”
Ray’s influence and legacy are also found in daughter Sarah Serafimidis’ career in book publishing and youngest daughter Carrie McKnight’s work in career counseling at San Jose State.
After 53 years of marriage, Marge McKnight passed away in 2014. Ray McKnight moved to Richmond, joining Sarah and Carrie and their spouses in the Bay Area. During his years in Richmond, he continued to inspire young students to share his love for writing and literature, volunteering with the Berkeley-based Writer Coach Connection and with Poetry Out Loud.
But he always stayed closely connected to Fresno, his daughters said, not only keeping up with local politics but also the arts. Ray McKnight continued to actively support Fresno State, the Fresno Philharmonic, and many local university, college, and community theatre groups.
Ray McKnight is survived by daughter Kate McKnight and her husband Mike Mogan; daughter Sarah Serafimidis and her husband Neo Serafimidis; daughter Carrie McKnight and her husband Glenn Barnes; grandsons Logan Wippern and Theo Serafimidis; sister Dee Brown; nieces Audrey Williams and Anne Robinson; nephew Stuart Brown; and several cousins. He was preceded in death by his parents and by his wife, Margaret A. McKnight.
A private inurnment service was held at Belmont Memorial Park in Fresno. A celebration of life will be held later this fall, date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial gifts be made to a charitable organization of choice or to the Fresno State English Department. Checks can be made to the Fresno State Foundation, with “H. Ray McKnight Scholarship” in the memo, and mailed to 2380 E. Keats Ave., MB99, Fresno, CA 93740. For questions about donations, call 559.278.8341.