Faces in the Crowd – Robert Knapp

July 12, 2018

By Gene Bodnar
Correspondent

One Saturday about two years ago, I met Robert Knapp at the Clare County Museum not long after I had become a member of the Clare County Historical Society.  I soon learned that he authored two historical books on the City of Clare and was currently researching and writing at least two more.  Since I was interested in the local history of the area, I immediately got on line to purchase the books on Amazon.  I was surprised to find that he also authored about ten other books besides those on Clare, all on a wide variety of topics.  It was then that I realized that Robert Knapp is an eminent historian in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.

Robert Knapp, local author, is a Mid Michigan native.

Robert Knapp, local author, is a Mid Michigan native.

Robert was born in 1946 and was raised in Mt. Pleasant.  He attended College Elementary School through the sixth grade.  Thereafter, he attended and graduated from the Mt. Pleasant public school system.

In 1968, he graduated from Central Michigan University with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in History and Spanish.  From there, Robert attended the University of Pennsylvania, achieving a Ph.D. in Ancient History in 1973, where his dissertation was on the Roman experience in the Spanish peninsula, 218-100 B.C.

During the next year, he held two brief stints:  the first was in the Classics Department of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and the second was in the History Department of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In 1974, he began teaching in the Classics Department of the University of California, Berkeley, where he remained for more than 30 years, retiring in 2006.  During his tenure, he eventually reached the rank of Professor.  During this period, he not only taught and did intensive research but he also served as the Chairman of the Classics Department, as the Chairman of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, as the Dean in the College of Letters and Science, and also as the Chairman of the Berkeley Faculty Senate.

Also during his tenure at Berkeley, Robert published eight of his distinguished volumes on ancient history.  His first book, entitled “Aspects of the Roman Experience in Iberia, 206-100 B.C.” was published in 1977.  It is a revised edition of his dissertation.  Incidentally, this volume today is a rare paperback book that can be purchased on Amazon for $150, with only three volumes available.
In 1983, he published “Roman Cordoba,” which is the first full-length treatment of one of the most important cities of Roman Spain.  This was followed by his next volume in 1992, “Latin Inscriptions from Central Spain,” which covers inscriptions found on stone from Madrid, Avila, and Segovia.
In 1999, Robert co-authored, with Pamela Vaughn, a textbook for third semester Latin students entitled “Finis Rei Publicae:  Eyewitnesses to the End of the Roman Republic.”  In 2000, he contributed to and coordinated the work on the Iberian Peninsula in a multi-authored volume called “Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World.”

In 2004, he co-authored, with John Mac Isaac, a volume entitled “Nemea III: The Coins,” which is a thorough treatment of the thousands of coins excavated at Nemea, Greece.

All of the books discussed so far were written and published before Robert’s retirement.  While he was still at Berkeley, he won the Letters and Science Outstanding Undergraduate Advising Award as well as the Berkeley Citation for his thirty years of service.

Robert is a teacher of Latin, and he also speaks fluent Spanish, French, and German.  Several of his books have been translated into foreign languages.  Besides his books already described, he has written innumerable academic articles.

Since his retirement, Robert has published two more volumes on ancient history.  The first is “Invisible Romans,” published in 2011, which discusses ordinary men and women in the Roman Empire.  This book has been translated into German, Spanish, Korean, Russian, Portuguese and Japanese.  The second volume is called “The Dawn of Christianity: People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles,” published in 2017.

In 2012, Robert was named Distinguished Alumnus of the year by Central Michigan University.
Nowadays, much of his time is devoted to researching the local history of Clare, Michigan, where he is also restoring an 1888 log home originally built by his great-grandfather, one of Clare’s early pioneers.

Robert Knapp, local author, is a Mid Michigan native.

Robert Knapp, local author, is a Mid Michigan native.

In 2012, he published “Clare: 1865-1940,” one of the Images of America series of books.  This book, in pictures and brief narratives, describes the development of Clare from its wilderness days into a lumberman’s paradise.  From there, it describes how the loggers were replaced by farmers and merchants, turning Clare into a typical small town found in the turn-of-the-century America.

Finally, it describes how Clare became an oil-rich town that drew colorful folks like Henry Ford and Jack Dempsey as well as the Purple Gang, which eventually led to national attention resulting from the famous murder of Isaiah Leebove at the Doherty Hotel.

In 2014, Robert published a second book on Clare entitled “Mystery Man: Gangsters, Oil, and Murder in Michigan.”  This “crime of the century” story is a vivid account of the events and people behind the 1938 murder of Isaiah Leebove at the Doherty Hotel.  The volume traces Leebove from being a brilliant lawyer to being the friend and mouthpiece to gangsters, to being the money launderer for the mob,  to being a mysterious figure between respectability and the underworld, and finally to being murdered by Jack Livingston at the hotel.

A third book on Clare entitled “Small Town Citizen, Big Time Gangster:  Sam Garfield, Clare, Gambling, Oil, Murder and the Mob” is expected to be published around the end of this year.  It will describe how Sam Garfield, a gambler in Detroit, gets hooked up with the Purple Gang, becomes a nationally known gangster associated with Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen, and all the while remains a model citizen in Clare, Michigan.

Robert is working on two additional books as well:  “Gangsters Up North” and “Small Town Main Street.”

In addition to enjoying researching the history of Clare, he also enjoys restoring a log home in Clare that was built by his great-grandfather, Thomas Kelly Bell, in 1888, which makes him one of the early pioneers of the area.  After more than 30 years of living there, Thomas decided to go west with his family, so he sold the home to his son Thomas R. in 1919, who lived there until he died in a wagon accident in 1934.  His son, Wallace, became its new owner.  He sold it to Sid Court, who was John Bell’s nephew.  Sid sold it to Pat Walters in 1946.  Pat sold the home to Bob Herrick in about 1985.  Robert Knapp purchased it from Herrick in 1995.

Robert lives with his wife, Carolyn, in California, but visits Clare often, not only to research the history of the area but to work on restoring the log home.  The interior of the home, which is simply called the Bell Place, has been beautifully finished in knotty pine and oak, with areas of the original logs still visible.

Clare is fortunate to have a world-renowned eminent historian who is so interested in researching and writing about its own local history, and who is also restoring a piece of that early history for generations to come.  It was a great pleasure for me, personally, to interview him.

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