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Obituary of James C. Knudson
James C. “Jim” Knudson — dedicated public servant, pillar of unwavering integrity, original Department of Ecology employee, and beloved husband, father, brother, grandfather, cousin, uncle and friend — died March 28, 2023, after several years battling atypical Parkinsonism and dementia.
Jim was born in Niagara Falls, New York, on July 7, 1942, to Everett C. and A. Margaret “Peg” Knudson. As a boy, Jim loved spending summers with his loving grandparents on their farm in New Hampshire, where he often explored nature. Throughout middle and high school, he began every day by delivering Gannett’s Niagara Falls Gazette and then the Buffalo News. In 1960, Jim graduated from LaSalle High School, having been an honor student, president of the science club and a clarinetist in the marching band. His senior year, Gannett awarded Jim a full college scholarship. Given his interest in engineering, he chose Worcester Polytechnic Institute. A Renaissance man, he convinced the school to offer a philosophy class to its students. When in college, he also embraced Unitarian Universalism as his spiritual home.
At one point when home in Niagara Falls for a visit, he looked at the many industrial smokestacks on the horizon and had an epiphany: the future was in working to reduce pollution, protect the environment and improve public health. Jim graduated with a chemical engineering degree in 1964, and the U.S. Public Health Service gave him a scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota. There he received a master’s degree in environmental public health with an emphasis on air pollution. Jim worked for the Public Health Service for three years.
During that time, he indulged his passion for hiking by joining the Appalachian Mountain Club. However, the mountains of the Pacific Northwest beckoned him to ascend greater heights. He also desired to experience working at local or state levels of government. In 1968, after traveling in Europe with his younger sister Randi, he packed his belongings into his Volkswagen bug and drove to Seattle, where he had accepted work with the Washington State Department of Health’s Air Quality Program. On weekends, Jim climbed mountains. During the week, he climbed the smokestacks of pulp mills, aluminum plants, and other industries to ensure they met the air quality standards of the time. From his south-facing office in the Smith Tower, he looked down on some of the factories he inspected, as well as construction of the Kingdome.
On July 25, 1969, Jim, on a whim, attended a party in the University District because Randi could not attend. At that party, he met Margaret Rose Weaver. They found they had many things in common, and she became the love of his life. They were married at the University Unitarian Church in Seattle on July 25, 1970.
That same year, the newly created Department of Ecology was headquartered in the Olympia area. In July 1971, Jim, Margaret and their infant daughter Anna moved to Olympia. At Ecology, Jim continued to inspect the effluent of industries throughout the state, but then began to write environmental regulations, including for non-nuclear hazardous waste, incinerator ash, and landfills. Working as a public servant to benefit human health and the environment was his calling. In 1974, their son Lars joined the family.
Jim’s love of the outdoors drew him to the Olympic Mountains. Mount Jupiter, a 14-mile round trip hike with considerable elevation gain was his favorite; he climbed Mount Jupiter at least 20 times. He ascended Mount Saint Helens in 1978 and was a support team member on a Mount Rainier climb. He loved the alpine meadows and always had his wildflowers book with him. Jim enthusiastically shared his love of nature with his family. They took numerous car camping trips together. The longest were two five-week trips to the southwest and the Rocky Mountains. A “Roadside Geology” book was always handy. Jim also shared his enthusiasm for nature with Lars and several other boys by being a cub scout den leader for three years.
Jim was an insatiable reader and lifelong learner. He always had a newspaper or book in his lap at home and loved discussing what he had read. He was especially interested in news related to science, nature, and the environment. He fostered a love of learning in his children and took an active interest in their studies and their friends’ studies. Jim loved classical music and, in the early ‘90s, he founded the Millennium Carillon Project to build a carillon bell tower by Capitol Lake. His vision was for a public space for the community to enjoy the sound of bells together. Though the project never came to fruition, it deepened friendships and inspired others around him to follow their passions. Jim also had a playful side and enjoyed hosting glogg parties, where the guests witnessed and sometimes partook in the ritual of glogg preparation based on an old family recipe. It was a way to not only warm up in winter but to honor his Scandavian ancestors and pass on the tradition to his son and daughter.
As he neared retirement in 2005, Jim believed it important to document Ecology’s accomplishments. He spearheaded an oral history of the Department, highlighting 11 different Ecology achievements. Jim’s hope was that it would be offered to new hires as a history of what has been done and encouragement to keep going. He loved to say, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Jim is remembered by his family, friends and colleagues for his brilliance, kindness, sense of humor, humility, visionary thinking, and high ethical and professional standards.
Jim is survived by his wife of nearly 53 years, Margaret R. W. Knudson; daughter, Anna (Christian Ferko); son, Lars (Junko Knudson); grandchildren, Riley, Patrick, Liam and Laila; sisters, Runa (Ivo Saarni) and Randi (predeceased by Richard Warner); cousin, Eric Knudson (Dawn); and numerous nieces and nephews.
Jim's family is extremely grateful for the love and care he received from Rev. Mary Gear, Pam Turner, Gail Gosney Wrede and other members of the congregation, caregivers from Providence Hospice and professional homecare services, and staff from Funeral Alternatives.
A celebration of Jim's life will be held on August 20, 2023, at 2:00 p.m. at the Olympia Unitarian Universalist church, 2315 Division Street NW, Olympia, WA 98502. To honor him, please consider taking a hike in the Olympics, lighting a candle, planting a tree, or making a donation to the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation or an environmental organization of your choice.
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