The Way We Were: Larry and Mary Jane McKnight

The Way We Were: Larry and Mary Jane McKnight
McKnights’ 50th anniversary family photo taken in Maine, 2017. LEFT TO RIGHT-Back row standing: Alex Naaman, Nancy McKnight, Tim Lum, Cathy McKnight Naaman, Patrick Naaman, Jon Reuter, Robin McKnight, Emma Naaman; LEFT TO RIGHT-Front row seated: Hilary Reuter, Mary Jane McKnight, Julia Lum, Michael Lum, Larry McKnight, Abigail Reuter

The story of Larry and Mary Jane McKnight began in the first grade at Hendricks Avenue Elementary School, and it continues today, seven decades later.

Both of them were born and raised in the San Marco area of Jacksonville—Larry on River Oaks Road with one younger sister and Mary Jane on a street just off of there as the fourth in line with four brothers. Their mothers played bridge together. Both of their fathers were exceptionally well known in the community.

Larry’s parents were Arthur and Emily, nee Fruit, from Texas. Arthur McKnight worked for the Army Corps of Engineers as a Chief of Operations and became a world expert on dredging. He oversaw many projects on the St. Johns River. Arthur McKnight was also a leader at All Saints Episcopal Church.

Mary Jane’s parents were Margaret, nee Hughes, a Jacksonville native, and O.E. Harrell, who was originally from Georgia. Her dad was a popular obstetrician in Jacksonville who delivered over 4,000 babies during his career, many of them at St. Luke’s, St. Vincent’s, and Baptist Hospitals. He charged $150 per delivery. One of Mary Jane’s brothers and one of her daughters entered the same career field.

The Harrell family Center: O.E. and Margaret; LEFT TO RIGHT: William,  John, James, Martin, Mary Jane
The Harrell family Center: O.E. and Margaret; LEFT TO RIGHT: William, John, James, Martin, Mary Jane

Mary Jane’s family might have been known by her doctor father’s popularity, but what most people didn’t know about the Harrells was that they had built their own 16-foot boat from a kit, sanded it down themselves, strapped on a 25 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor, and headed south to Miami. All seven of them. “We didn’t move very fast,” Mary Jane said. Each family member had a responsibility in getting ready for the trip; Mary Jane’s was to pack drinks. At eight years old, she didn’t know better than to pack prune juice, her favorite fruit drink at that time. “My brothers have never let me forget it,” she said.

Mary Jane’s maternal grandparents, Leo and Bea Hughes, were known around town as well. They were here at the turn of the century. Leo was in the lumber business. They were instrumental in the building of St. Paul Catholic Church on Park Street and St. Vincent’s Hospital. They also built their house on Montgomery Place in Avondale. In the window shutters, they carved a capital H for Hughes. They lost that house during the Great Depression, but the letters are still visible today.

Larry and Mary Jane attended grammar school together through sixth grade, and then their families moved—the McKnights to San Jose Boulevard behind the elementary school and the Harrells near the corner of Arbor Lane and Laurel Road. Larry and Mary Jane went on to Landon Junior-Senior High School. As friends, they socialized in the same groups. They enjoyed the Gator Bowl, basketball games, the Texas Drive-In, and The Krystal.

Larry was on the swim team, lettered. Mary Jane still regrets not having been a Lionette. “I was the most un-athletic person in my class. I was asked to be a timer for the swim team,” she said. “As long as she could push the button on a stopwatch, she could do her job,” Larry said as they both laughed at the memory of it.

The number one teacher whom Larry and Mary Jane remember fondly is Ms. Hunter Perkins, their 12th grade English teacher. They still recall her “double double toil and trouble” memorization exercises and the fact that they sat near each other in the back of her classroom because students were arranged by spelling scores. “In the back of the room were all the boys and Mary Jane,” Larry told. “Because I couldn’t spell either,” she admitted.

They graduated with the class of 1960 before going off to separate colleges. Mary Jane went to Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina as a home economics major while Larry went to the University of Virginia as an engineering major on a Navy scholarship. “Halfway through school, I discovered that was not my calling, and I transferred to the business school and got a degree in accounting. It took me five years to get out of college,” he said.

By September 1964, Mary Jane had returned to Jacksonville and was teaching at Landon, their alma mater, something she swore she would never do. “But I did it,” she conceded with a giggle. For three years, she taught home economics in classrooms down the hall from her former teachers. One of them even reprimanded her for wearing high-heeled shoes during her first week on the job. But from the opposite side of the desk, Mary Jane developed a new appreciation for faculty members. As an adult and a teacher herself, she actually found her former instructors fun and funny.

Larry returned to Jacksonville from Virginia in 1965, assigned by the Navy to Mayport. He and Mary Jane had not officially dated before this time. They were friends, and their families were as well. They spent time together, including holidays, and, occasionally, they escorted each other to functions if they couldn’t find dates of their own. But they were not considered a couple. Then it happened, following a party down at the beach. “We finally decided we were meant for each other,” Larry said. They were 23 years old.

Once they were engaged, Larry’s naval ship was sent to the Mediterranean for six months. They left the wedding plans up to their mothers while Larry was at sea. Upon his return, they were walking down the aisle at St. John’s Cathedral. “There weren’t any secrets when Larry and I got married,” Mary Jane said. It was May 6, 1967, and they had already been friends for nearly two decades.

Almost immediately following the wedding, the McKnights moved to Charleston, South Carolina for two years; Larry was assigned there as a rear admiral’s aide. A unique aspect of the job was that, even though Larry was fully qualified, Mary Jane had to be interviewed and approved by the admiral and his wife before Larry could take the job, as it involved the handling of a social calendar. She passed their inspection.

Larry McKnight in Vung Tau, Vietnam, 1969
Larry McKnight in Vung Tau, Vietnam, 1969

From there, Larry served in Vung Tau, Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He was there when their first daughter, Cathy, was born and didn’t meet her until she was nine months old when he returned to Jacksonville where Mary Jane had gone to be with her parents while Larry served overseas.

For the next 18 months, 1970-1971, the young family of three lived in Philadelphia so that Larry could earn a Wharton MBA at the University of Pennsylvania. From there, they were off to Rochester, New York when Larry was hired by Xerox Corporation. Their second daughter, Robin, was born up there before the company moved the family south to Stamford, Connecticut for three years and then back again to Rochester where their third daughter, Nancy, was born. There were additional transfers, which included moves to Dallas, Texas and Saratoga, California. “Xerox spent an enormous amount of money moving me around the country, which I never quite understood,” Larry said of his time with the company before his 2000 retirement. Mary Jane thinks it was because “he was a problem solver.”

After Larry’s retirement from Xerox, he worked remotely doing part-time accounting work for Coastal Construction Products, a Jacksonville company owned by Mary Jane’s younger brother, William Harrell, and William’s good friend, Skip Allcorn,

Larry and Mary Jane were gone from Jacksonville for a total of 47 years. By the time they returned six years ago, their three girls were already married and on their own. Through all those decades, they never lost connections here though. Mary Jane maintained her leadership role in running Landon reunions. And they visited Jacksonville often when their parents were still alive.

Today, the McKnights have six grandchildren, two per each daughter who live in Texas, Massachusetts, and New York; they rarely visit Florida, as it’s less complicated for Larry and Mary Jane to fly to them instead. When they are not cruising at sea, that is. The coronavirus pandemic caused a long gap in their travels though: 20 months. Only recently did they begin again.

As a hobby that morphed into paid work, Mary Jane does genealogy research. Her curiosity began with a desire to find out who her maternal great grandmother’s parents were. Her investigating led to the sad revelation of a tragic accident involving a wood-burning stove in 1916. It prompted in Mary Jane a passion for getting to the truth of family histories.

May 6, 1967 at St. John’s Cathedral
May 6, 1967 at St. John’s Cathedral

Larry and Mary Jane are active in two churches, St. John’s Cathedral and All Saints Episcopal. They also are active in the exercise room. They both enjoy working out and staying fit.

When asked the secret to the longevity of their love, Larry said, “It’s nice to marry the girl next door, the one you grew up with. But I didn’t know that when I grew up with her.” Mary Jane commented on all they have in common and the importance of being mutually supportive in relationship.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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