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William Clayton Knittel (Bill)

Died: August 20, 2003

Bill Knittel was a joyful optimist who brought energy and humor to the Yale Marching Band and later to his family, friends and medical patients.

Bill came from a musical family in Snohomish, WA. Mom and Dad were teachers who formed a dance band to earn college money for their kids. All the children performed, including young Bill on the tenor sax. Family gigs funded college education for all of the children except Bill, who won a full academic scholarship.

Bill was an energetic sax player in the heyday of zany Yale Marching Band performances. He played all four years and served as band president his senior year. Bill worked as a Branford aide and was chief aide his senior year.

Roommate Joe Chusid captured Bill’s energy and ambition in a wonderful eulogy, in which he remembered that Bill delivered “Chicken Delight.” He worked the “dead man’s shift,” 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. taking his calls in his dorm room. He would disappear into the night, often delivering chicken across town, sometimes to parties that were just starting. He drove an ancient yellow VW bug that never failed him.

Bill’s dream was to become a small town family physician. This was in the days before family practice got the recognition it deserves. Bill graduated from the University of Washington Medical School and interned in family practice in New York City and Hershey, PA. In Pennsylvania he married and had three children. The marriage, however, did not last.

Bill moved to Puyallup, a small Washington town in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, and became the first certified family practice doctor in the state. After first working in a well-established office, he started his own practice and eventually served the community for 32 years. In 1980 he married Norma Jean, who brought with her three children from a prior marriage. Together they raised a blended family of seven children.

Norma said Bill was one of the “funniest people I’ve ever known,” but with a disdain for sarcasm. Together with his children he golfed, skied and fished, especially fly fishing for trout in Washington’s streams and lakes. He was never fully pleased with his fly-casting.

This genuinely happy man started to plan his retirement; he and Norma picked out a “spectacular” piece of property for their retirement home. At age 59 he suffered a massive brain aneurism; despite surgery, he died three days later.

Bill was beloved by the medical staff with whom he worked and the patients he served. When a long-time patient learned he had fallen ill, she wrote him a moving letter on behalf of her family, which reads, in part:

“It is important to us that you know how much you have meant to our family. You have been an amazing and wonderful doctor to us. You are always kind and heartfelt with us and you always seem to have just learned about something new and helpful about the very thing we came to see you about…plus, we both think you’re very funny. No matter how badly we feel when we come to your office, sick or despairing, you always make us laugh and manage to lift our spirits.”

Michael Chusid remembers:

Bill Knittel died in 2006 of a cerebral aneurysm that took him suddenly but painlessly. He was my roommate, along with Hank Christensen for four years at Yale, first in decrepit Wright Hall, then for three years in Neo-Gothic Branford. Bill was a blonde, apple-cheeked, brush-cut guy out of the exotically named hometown of Snohomish, Washington. He was a salt-of-the earth type person, who worked hard on academics, getting ready for a future medical career. He was a sax player, and from the very beginning was interested in performing in the Yale Marching Band and immediately started playing at all the football games. He never seemed to miss a one, and eventually got into leadership positions in that crazy organization.

There are a few personal remembrances that made an impression on me thinking back about Bill. One was when we both served as Yale Aides at Yale New Haven Hospital. This entailed wheeling patients around the facility. One day we both came back, and each of us was shocked when we told the other we had seen and talked with one of our schoolmates who had just been admitted to the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. It was the first time Bill or I had experienced such a disturbing scenario.

During junior and senior years, to make ends meet, Bill took a job as a driver and deliveryman for Chicken-Delight, a fried chicken operation that served the Hill District of New Haven. Because of school Bill had the 10 p.m to 6 a.m. shift. I don’t know how his grades survived that, but the stories he used to tell about some of his inner city adventures as a deliveryman in the inner city at 3 a.m. in the morning made you smile but simultaneously raised hackles on the back of your neck.

Finally, Bill always maintained a choir-boy look throughout college. As far as women in his life, for the first two years at school he seemed celibate. Every other day he was reading a new letter from his hometown sweet heart, Candy, or was listening to audiotapes she sent him. But the Pacific Northwest was very far from Connecticut, and Bill tended to stay in New Haven the entire year, making the 3,000 mile drive back to the West coast in his VW Beetle, only once a year for summer break. I think Candy got tired of waiting for Bill, and their romance withered. Given the lack of women around Yale at the time, and Bill’s apparent disinterest in any one but his “beloved Candy,” I was shocked when midway through senior year Bill announced that he would be leaving our triple to take up occupancy in a newly vacated Branford single. His excuse was that his Chicken-Delight schedule forced him to be up so much in the wee hours, that he was certain he was disturbing Hank and me with his activities. This superficially made sense, but the real reason for his move became apparent one day when I visited him in his new digs, and was greeted at the door by one of our female grad student psych instructors (we were both psych majors), who clearly had taken up residence with Bill in his new room. The moral of the story: Never judge a book by its cover…