By Alice Wood
Published May 1999, The Journal of DuPage County Bar Association
Though born and raised in Naperville when it was still a farm town, my grandfather, Win Knoch, was no country bumpkin. Throughout his career as an attorney, prosecutor, and judge he matched wits with Clarence Darrow, rubbed elbows with several Presidents, and traveled the world over. Judge Knoch’s worldliness did not, however, blind him to the virtues of his home county. "DuPage County," he often declared, "is the Garden Spot of America and the Paradise of the Universe." While there are those who might take issue with this statement (Cook County attorneys, recalcitrant Democrats) much of what makes DuPage County special today was made possible through Judge Knoch’s efforts.
Born in Naperville, Illinois in 1895, Win Knoch was the third generation of his family to settle in Naperville. His father established a cigar store in downtown Naperville at the corner of Jefferson and Main. Starbucks Coffee is the current tenant, but who would have thought cigars could have made such a comeback? My grandfather rolled cigars to earn tuition money while attending law school at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from DePaul in 1917. (The photo of his law school class is hanging in the hallway of my home, and I am happy to report that there were three women in his graduating class paving the way for future opportunities for their sisters.)
My grandfather was the first regularly appointed Assistant State’s Attorney in DuPage County, a position he held from 1922 to 1930, during which time he was also the attorney for the DuPage County Board of Supervisors and the Forest Preserve Commission of DuPage County. As a prosecutor, he handled several high-profile cases, including that of John Preston, convicted of first-degree murder of Agnes Johnston. Preston was the first person electrocuted at the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet under the then-new Death Penalty Act. Grandfather also prosecuted a case in which George Munding, the "Broadway Riding Master," was convicted and sentenced to 22 years for the 1925 murder of a Hinsdale woman. Munding was defended by Clarence Darrow and Charles W. Hadley.
While serving as an Assistant State’s Attorney, Win Knoch practiced in the firm of Reed, Knoch and Keeney. Chauncey W. Reed went on to serve in Congress from 1935 until his death in 1956. Russell W. Keeney went on to succeed my grandfather as county judge and circuit judge and later succeeded Chauncey Reed as congressman. My grandfather was elected County Judge for DuPage County for three four-year terms, from 1930-1942. He was elected Circuit Court Judge of the 16th Judicial Circuit of Illinois (comprising DuPage, DeKalb, Kane and Kendall Counties) for three six-year terms. During this time he also served in the Juvenile and Psychopathic Courts of Cook County. Where he encouraged a policy that no judge should send a juvenile to a facility that the judge had not previously inspected. One of his more lasting accomplishments on behalf of our judiciary was to secure pension benefits for DuPage County judges.
During his tenure as a county and circuit judge, Win Knoch also served as President of the National Bank and Trust Company. This institution was formed by a group of civic leaders after the economic upheavals of the Great Depression caused Naperville’s two existing banks to fail. Through the efforts of the Naperville National Bank and Trust Company, many local citizens were saved from financial ruin. Judge Knoch always considered his involvement with the Bank during those difficult times to be his single greatest contribution to his hometown.
Another of Judge Knoch’s civic endeavors helped pave the way for one of Naperville’s healthiest institutions: Edward Hospital. The hospital originated as Edward Sanatorium, a treatment center for tuberculosis. As a member of the Board of Trustees of Edward Sanatorium, my grandfather worked to ensure that the property would eventually be taken over by the City of Naperville for use as a general hospital.
The acquisition of private property for the benefit of the general public became a recurring theme in the life of Win Knoch, as he played a prominent role in several land transactions that helped shape, the face of modern Naperville. As General Chairman of the Naperville Centennial Celebration in the year 1931, he appointed the Permanent Memorial Committee, which, under his leadership, acquired the Centennial Beach property for the City of Naperville. The property is now known as Centennial Park, which embraces Centennial Beach and remains today as a permanent memorial for Naperville. When I was a young girl, Grandpa regularly promised that he would come swimming with us at the Beach. The thought of Grandpa in a swimsuit was too much. But it never failed, the season would end and no Grandpa at the Beach.
The Judge also helped Naperville acquire 200 acres of parkland from the estate of Caroline Martin Mitchell. Caroline Martin Mitchell was the last survivor of her family and she had no children. My grandfather convinced her that a bequest of her property to the City of Naperville would be of untold benefit for generations yet to come. She agreed and the property is now home to Naper Settlement, Naperville Central High School and Knoch Park. Hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from the generosity of Caroline Martin Mitchell.
Given Judge Knoch’s sense of duty regarding the Naperville community, it should be no surprise that he earmarked his own property for eventual public use and benefit. Knoch Knolls, located near the south end of Naperville, belonged to my grandparents until 1979. It was located between two branches of the DuPage River. Visitors would have to park their cars on one side of the river and walk across a suspended bridge to the other side where there was a cottage, a playhouse for the grandchildren, and "The Wigwam" which was a building where all of the parties were held. Many senior members of our bar will remember the wonderful parties held at Knoch Knolls. The 115 acres parcel, which made up Knoch Knolls was dedicated as a public park in 1979 and is now known as Knoch Knolls park.
It was at our family parties at "the farm" that I witnessed my grandfather’s political side. At every family party there would come a time, usually just after dinner, when my grandfather would clear his throat and then stand and deliver a speech about our country. You would have thought that our family parties were a prelude to the Republican National Convention. He believed in absolute equality for men and women regardless of race or religion. He believed that any job worth doing was worth doing right, and that everyone should be equally respected without regard to his or her position in life. One of the themes for his many speeches was that our country would never fall to outside forces, but that we were at risk from within. There was a time when he was encouraged to run for Governor of Illinois, but issues relating to his health prevented him from pursuing that office.
Win Knoch is remembered as the Godfather of the Republican Party of DuPage County. He was a close friend of many influential members of the party, and in 1953 he was recommended by his good friend, Senator Everett M. Dirksen, and appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the United Sates District Court of Northern Illinois. He was appointed by President Eisenhower to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on August 21, 1958. Another long-time friend of my grandfather was, The Honorable William Bauer, of the United States Court of Appeals. (Judge Bauer was also my Criminal Procedure professor at DePaul University.) I have learned about another side of my grandfather through Judge Bauer’s stories. Apparently my grandfather had a fairly dry sense of humor and after becoming a federal judge he would begin many of his speeches to various groups with the following opening line. "Ladies and Gentlemen, my position as a Federal Court Judge prevents me from disclosing the fact that I am a Republican." It must have killed him when two of his daughters married ardent Democrats. One of them was even a Cubs fan. (Grandpa was a huge Sox fan.) It was an unspoken rule that anyone considering running for office would seek the advice and approval of my grandfather before announcing their candidacy. One particular attorney that my grandfather supported was John Erlenborn who served as Congressman for this district for many years. I was lucky enough to serve as his intern in Washington, D.C. in 1982. (Yes, I had a little help getting that job!). One day Congressman Erlenborn called me into his office and said that he had a call for me. I thought it was awfully strange that he would be acting as a secretary for me. It turned out it was my grandfather checking up on me. I lived with my grandparents during my senior year in high school because their health was beginning to fail. I came home one day for lunch and Governor Thompson was in the dining room having lunch with Grandpa. At my grandparents 50th Wedding Anniversary at their home there were Secret Service agents working the party because there were so many government officials in attendance. Another memorable event was a huge party to celebrate my grandfather’s eighty-eighth birthday. Our entire family and all of his friends came to his home to wish him well. There was such a long line to visit with him that I never saw him until the end of the party. I was the last person to leave but before heading home I honored his request for a glass of scotch and a cigarette. He wasn’t supposed to have either but at the age of eighty-eight he was entitled to do anything he wanted. My mother called me early the next morning to tell me that my grandfather died during the night. Everyone agreed that it was a fitting end to a remarkable life. He said his goodbyes to everyone and I’m sure he was ready to join my grandmother, Irene Knoch, who had died six months earlier.
There was a time when my grandfather’s name was more familiar in DuPage County. On April 29, 1979 the County of DuPage, by its Board of Supervisors, held a ceremony dedicating the Court House Annex at the County Seat in Wheaton, Illinois as the Judge Win G. Knoch Court House Annex. Although there is no longer a courthouse named in his honor, his legacy continues through the efforts of family and friends. He was an inspiration to everyone who knew him. At the time of my grandfather’s death in 1983 I had just finished my first year of law school at his alma mater, DePaul University. My cousin, Win Wehrli, who also currently practices law in Naperville, was studying law at McGeorge School of Law in California. The Honorable William Bauer, swore in my cousin, Win and I, in a ceremony in 1985.
Alice Wood is a Sole Practitioner in Naperville. Her practice is concentrated in estate planning and probate. She received her Undergraduate Degree from St. Mary’s College and her Law Degree from DePaul College of Law.