Joseph W. McKnight, professor emeritus of law at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, has been a great inspiration for scholarship and service for countless people in our profession and in other vocations. Remaining active and vital, McKnight was awarded the Honorary Alumnus Award at the school’s 28th Annual Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony on March 19, 2015.

We have an interesting account of the life of this remarkable professor and scholar based on McKnight’s 2010 Christmas letter, which featured reflections on his World War II military service, as well as subsequent interviews and a manuscript titled “Recollections of my Forebears: A Brief History of the McKnight Family,” which was provided by McKnight’s son, John B. McKnight, a partner in Locke Lord.

McKnight opens the 2010 letter noting that he has read of increasing interest in World War II military service. He states that some of his ancestors came from Tennessee into eastern Texas and were involved in the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and the First World War. He wrote:

But my forebears and collaterals stayed pretty clear of fighting in far off places. For just sheer distance traveled on military service, I probably outdid all the rest and never encountered an enemy though I did drop a depth charge on something on the Carolina Coast but I think it was probably a very active school of fish rather than a German submarine. They left me in charge in the middle of the night and when the sonar showed up an object on the screen, I was taking no chances. In any event, that was my heroic moment.

I was called on to get our merchant ships safely from New York to Cuba and my Pacific duty was mainly crowned by service in 1946 by taking over 50 milk cows to Guam and then dumping some faulty ammunition of our Marines in North China into the China Sea. We had some American farm boys on our boat, and they were quite good with handling those cows.

We had over 50 cows on deck and had 17 calves born on the ship en route. We got to Guam, set up a gang-plank to walk the cows ashore, and promptly had a cow fall off into the sea. Thereafter, we carefully delivered the remainder of the cargo. I blame the loss of that cow on some Japanese prisoners of war who had no idea how to act around cattle and who made a lot of noise that disoriented the cow.

Mine was a pretty tame war but fraught with a good deal of North Atlantic bad weather.

In interviews, McKnight speaks again about disposing of faulty ammunition in the Pacific:

We had stays in fashionable resorts: Miami, Key West, Havana, Tenerife, Bermuda, and the Azores. The Navy is definitely the place for gentlemen to go during wars. I briefly had the reputation of being the second best American chess player in the Azores.

McKnight’s paternal grandfather, Joseph Banning McKnight, was born in Dallas in 1869 and enrolled to study medicine at the Memphis Hospital and Medical College (now the University of Tennessee). In 1913, he was appointed head of the newly founded State Tuberculosis Sanatorium 17 miles west of San Angelo. The 57-bed hospital grew during his tenure to a 1,000-bed treatment center. McKnight’s parents, John Banning McKnight and Helen Katherine Webb McKnight, lived in San Angelo and reared their five children. McKnight is the oldest of the five and the last surviving member of the immediate family.

McKnight entered the University of Texas at age 16. He has said that his father was stern with all of the children, but that McKnight tended to wear down the severity. McKnight’s mother, while not particularly stern, had the expectation that “we would do what we were supposed to do.” This lead to McKnight’s lifetime commitment of service in his profession and to his family, church, and community.

“My parents learned child rearing as they went along,” McKnight said. “My father had learned discipline as a military cadet at Texas A&M College and had been expelled for a time for hazing freshmen. He was seemingly inclined to treat me as a college freshman. Thus when I became one, I may have been better prepared than I otherwise would have been.”

McKnight’s father told him to join the ROTC, and the Navy was the only branch to offer an ROTC program at the University of Texas. McKnight had just turned 19 when he received his commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve in February 1944. He had been able to finish most of his college education before entering active service in 1944 and serving through the end of the war. He then had the opportunity to volunteer for an extra year’s tour of duty; he did so, and got in a year of travel all over the globe.

McKnight states that his most harrowing naval experience was a fight with the elements, rather than with the human enemy. In September 1945, his ship was near Key West (returning from service in Europe). His captain asked for permission to go eastward into the Atlantic to avoid an approaching hurricane, but they were ordered to anchor securely in the bay outside the immediate harbor. The ship was not able to ride out the storm. Both anchor chains were broken, and the ship was going back and forth between two islands (or so they thought). McKnight reported: “To our dismay, however, one of the islands on our radar screen was another vessel that had already blown aground and we were soon blown aground next to it… . When we awoke in the early light there was a dead calm, both vessels perched on an island of fine sand about 100 yards from the nearest water. It took three months to dig a channel to get the ships off the island and into the dry dock for repairs for further duty.”

After the ship was released for service, McKnight remained on duty with the ship as an air-rescue ship. When the ship was decommissioned, McKnight was transferred to San Francisco and then remained on duty through the summer of 1946, working in the Pacific. At the end of the summer, McKnight was discharged at Seattle and returned home to Texas.

McKnight re-entered the University of Texas in the fall semester of 1946, completed his B.A. degree in May 1947, and applied for a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University. He received the scholarship in 1947, took the Queen Elizabeth in October 1947, and attended Magdalen College. McKnight took two degrees at Oxford and completed his education there in 1950 with a B.A. in jurisprudence and a Bachelor of Civil Law. He then returned to the University of Texas, where he attended courses to prepare for the Texas Bar, which he passed in the summer of 1951.

Armed with his degrees and holding a Texas law license, McKnight accepted a position in New York and practiced there for four years in the wills, trusts, and estates section of the nation’s second-oldest law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore. McKnight was offered the princely salary of $4,000 per year in 1951.

In 1955, SMU Law Dean Robert Storey offered McKnight a position teaching wills and estate law and legal history. He took the job and has remained with SMU ever since and last taught regular classes in the 2012-2013 academic year. He had taken leave in 1958 to 1959 to complete the course work for his Master of Law Degree from Columbia University. He also took leave in 1967 to hold a chair as a professor at the University of Edinburg and in 1976 when he was at the University of Salamanca.

McKnight was in the forefront of attorneys who lobbied to remove the limitations of married women, a segment of society that until the mid-1960s had severe restrictions on the right to contract and take legal action without the joinder and consent of their husbands. He worked with State Bar of Texas Family Law Section Chair Louise Raggio in drafting the Marital Property Bill that was passed in 1967 and resulted in our Texas Family Code.

McKnight was a contributor to other state and federal legislation. He was principal draftsman of the Texas Antiquities Code in 1969, one of the first state efforts to preserve and protect archaeological resources after finds along the Texas Gulf Coast. He worked to expand that law in sessions of the Legislature and helped Texas obtain a strong presence in historic preservation efforts through the creation of the Texas Historical Commission. In 1988, he authored the initial proposals for the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act.

McKnight prepared the Debtor-Exemption Reform Act of 1973, the Texas Homestead and Personal Property Laws of 1985, and incremental legislation and amendments relating to these subjects for Texas Statutory Laws and for the Texas Constitution.

In June 2004, McKnight wrote of a 1967 Mediterranean cruise where he met the director of the British School of Archaeology at Rome. Conversations with that official cemented McKnight’s conviction that “Texas needed some control of archaeological looting” before “a great many of the remains of the past would be lost—mostly to amateur entrepreneurialism.” McKnight continued: My discussions were of great help to me in formulating the Texas Antiquities Code, which I put together on my return, and despite gloomy prophecies at the time, the foundation was laid for our present system of historical preservation in Texas.” McKnight continues with his ideas for furthering the cause of historical preservation in Texas (including speculation on creating a state fund to reward “finds” so that the finders are willing to turn in archaeological materials—and shipwreck artifacts especially—to the state government). McKnight concludes with his ever-present optimism: “We sometimes surprise ourselves at what can be accomplished.”

McKnight married Julia Ann Dyer of Dallas in 1957; she died in 1972. He then married Mildred (Mimi) Payne Aldredge in 1975. The McKnights took a house in Oxford the summer of each year from 1984 through 2000 and entertained a tremendous number of students, scholars, friends, and colleagues over the course of those summers.

McKnight’s career at the SMU Law School spanned more than 50 years. An estimated 10,000 students have taken his classes. McKnight and Mimi remain active; he has had many hobbies, including bookbinding.

In 2012, McKnight donated his collection of rare legal history books to the SMU Dedman School of Law. The collection of more than 6,000 was valued at almost $7 million dollars. McKnight collected the books over 40 years. The oldest book was published in 1481 and is an incunabula, which means that it was printed (not handwritten) prior to 1501 and post-Gutenberg. The McKnight collection is prominently displayed on the fourth floor of the Underwood Law Library at SMU Dedman School of Law. It occupies dozens of shelves and is separated by region and country, with the French and Italian collections being the largest.

McKnight and Mimi are avid readers, and an especially surprising tribute to them has been their place in the novels of best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith. Smith and McKnight became friends professionally, with Smith serving on the faculty of the law school in Edinburg and at SMU. Mimi received the dedication for the acclaimed The Ladies No. 1 Detective Society, and they are both portrayed by name in The Right Attitude to Rain in Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series, where Isabel is an editor of a philosophical journal with about 2,000 subscribers. She puzzles over ethical issues and solves some mysteries along the way. The McKnights appear in five books in the series. McKnight is described in The Right Attitude to Rain as follows:

His interests were antiquarian, and these were shared by Mimi, who dealt in rare books. McKnight restored and rebound these books in the small bindery that he had set up in an upstairs room of their Dallas house, a room stacked with pots of glue, bolts of soft binding leather, all the tools of that trade. He knew all about these leathers and endpapers and bookworms. And Mimi knew all about choral music and old cookery, books, and cats.

McKnight has authored more than 30 survey articles in the SMU Law Review Annual Survey of Texas Law, and the 1913 survey carries his Family Law review as the first among the survey articles. He retains the gratitude of many students who learned ethical legal professionalism under his tutelage.


Bill Hicks,
of Mt. Vernon, is a 1976 graduate SMU School of Law and is active in many historical associations. His favorite course in law school was McKnight’s English Legal History.