One word comes up in every conversation about Wayne Knoll: love.
An English professor and former Jesuit priest, Knoll, 80, died Nov. 10 after a three-month battle with an incurable and inoperable cancerous tumor. He joined the Georgetown faculty in 1972 and taught here for 41 years.
“Wayne said that the most satisfying element of being human and being alive is to love, to love others and to be loved,” Knoll’s wife, Rev. Anne Gehman, said.
Raised in Kansas, Knoll grew up with the tradition of the Catholic Church. He was gifted academically from a young age and finished all the books in his middle school library two years before he graduated eighth grade. He joined the Jesuit order before attending St. Louis University and then Harvard University for his doctorate in literature.
Throughout his studies, Knoll developed the singular dream of teaching at Georgetown. It was the only place he applied when searching for a job.
“I have never known any person with more single-minded purpose than Dr. Knoll. His goal was to become a professor of literature at Georgetown University,” Knoll’s biographer, Suzanne Giesemann, said. “He would not have settled for anything else.”
At Georgetown, students and colleagues adored him for his commitment to his work. Recognized for his talent for teaching literature, Knoll was honored with the Edward B. Bunn Award, given annually by the senior class, for excellence in teaching in 2006. His classes, including “Faulkner” and “Eliot’s Waste Land,” were among the most popular in the Department of English every semester.
While at Georgetown, Knoll made an enormous change: He left the Jesuit priesthood more than 25 years ago and later married Gehman, who is a world-renowned psychic medium.
Gehman described herself and her husband as soul mates, recalling their routine of beginning each morning with a meditation and a reading, whether from a philosophical book, a scientific work or scripture. She said they were brought together by their love for God and the “spiritual pathway of life” they shared.
“We have a totally different philosophical understanding,” she said. “He was very Catholic, while I’m more of a Universalist and accept truth in all the world religions. But it never made a difference to us that we had that difference, because we honored that in one another.”
Knoll’s life and transition from the priesthood was recorded in Giesemann’s biography “The Priest and the Medium,” which was published in 2009.
“When I interviewed him and asked him what it was like to leave the priesthood, he couldn’t talk about it. He had blanked it out of his mind,” Giesemann said. “It took him several days to dig up those very painful memories. It was so hard for him, because being a priest was his life.”
Knoll had not met Gehman at the time he decided to leave the Jesuit order.
“He didn’t leave the priesthood for any one woman – he left because he had to be true to himself. He wanted a more full life, eventually with a woman,” Giesemann said. “I know that he was incredibly happy with Anne, and with his life and with being able to teach at Georgetown. I know that he regrets that he could not be both a priest and a married man.”
English professor John Pfordresher, who joined the faculty a year after Knoll, said that Knoll never believed that he had truly left the priesthood.
“He never lost his sense that he was a Jesuit priest,” Pfordresher said. “He began to see his role as not in the traditional form of living in the Jesuit community and abiding by the original vows he had taken.”
“In his heart and soul, he was always a Jesuit priest,” Gehman said.
Friends and coworkers say Knoll continued his commitment to Jesuit ideals in all aspects of his life, especially teaching.
“He deeply cared for his students, and because of his enthusiasm and kindness, he was in turn cherished by them,” Interim Chair of the English Department Dennis Todd wrote in an email.
Connor Joseph (COL ’16) developed a close relationship with Knoll during the professor’s “Southern Literature” class.
“He became like a mentor to me last semester,” Joseph said. “I would go to office hours, and we would talk about how the writing related to my life.”
Knoll related his experience growing up in Kansas to Joseph, who was from North Dakota, also bringing in the texts they studied.
“He wanted to connect the literature to personal stories,” Joseph said. “He grew up in a small plains town like I did, and as we were reading this literature he would say to me, ‘This really has to do with what you’re going through.'”
Todd said that Knoll was one of the English department’s most popular teachers throughout the four decades he taught at Georgetown.
“His courses on Faulkner and T.S. Eliot were consistently filled to overflowing, and often there were many more students on the waitlists than were enrolled in his classes,” Todd wrote.
Pfordresher said that Knoll’s reputation as a fantastic teacher was well known among students.
“‘You’ve got to take Knoll before you graduate’ – I hear that a lot,” Pfordresher said.
Knoll taught University President John J. DeGioia during his time as an undergraduate.
“I had the privilege of being taught by Wayne as a student and then later becoming a colleague and friend,” DeGioia said. “Our community deeply feels this loss. Wayne’s commitment to his students, and his enthusiasm for his work was contagious. We were all made the better by it.”
Joseph said that Knoll’s intense love for students distinguished him from other professors.
“His love for students can hardly be matched, and his lectures on the importance of compassion and empathy are perfect representations of a life for others,” Joseph said. “When I think about Wayne Knoll, I think of a man who treasured his purpose as a professor.”
Knoll brought Gehman in to meet each of his classes every semester, and she said he spent a huge amount of time outside of class helping his students with whatever they may need.
“Although he left the priesthood, he was still a priest, and that knowledge and wisdom that he gained he shared with all of his students and loved ones. He just loved teaching, and loved all of his students,” she said.
Beyond his deep care for his students, Pfordresher said Knoll’s cheerful disposition made him a joy to see in the office.
“He had an irrepressible, high-spirited emotional life,” Pfordresher said. “Always up. He always had a big smile. … He was just a breath of fresh air and a radiant source of high spirits everywhere he went.”
Even near the end of his life, Knoll did not waver from his positivity.
“Wayne had no fear of death,” Gehman said. “It took him quite a while to finally accept the fact that there was no cure for his condition, but he just approached death as he approached life: with enthusiasm, and with joy, and with an open heart and an open mind.”
Knoll wrote a letter to his students after learning of his cancer that was posted on his office door. Modeling his behavior on that of St. Francis, who gave a name to everything in his life, Knoll named his cancerous tumor “Louie.”
“As a child of the modern era, I know that Louie was generated and is growing by following the bio chemical laws of nature,” Knoll wrote. “But I also know the power of prayer, especially in two respects. Prayer can effect miraculous intervention into natural process, and prayer can assist in developing and maintaining a positive spiritual attitude.”
The letter displayed his unwavering faith in God in the face of adversity.
“I totally accept my situation as ultimately coming from a loving God, Who created natural law and the freedom of the human heart,” he wrote. “I am drawn to reach out to all those whom I love. I would love to hear from you, as we all go to God together.”
Knoll’s funeral service was held Nov. 16 at the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment in Falls Church, Va., which Gehman founded and where she is a pastor. A memorial service will be held at Georgetown in January.
Knoll was not happy about leaving his loved ones during his last months, but he considered that separation to be temporary.
“He fully believed that he was going to go to God, and that he would be with God and that he would be waiting for Anne,” Pfordresher said. “He said to me, ‘You know, I’m a boy from Kansas. The way I picture things, I’ll be going to heaven, and I’ll be sitting on the front porch, waiting for Anne to come.'”