Sunday, May 9, 2004
Sen. Knight dies at 74
By GRETCHEN LOSI/Staff Writer
DUARTE -- State Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight, a decorated war veteran, test pilot and conservative icon, died at the City of Hope National Medical Center just weeks after he was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia.
Knight was 74 years old.
A Republican from Palmdale, Knight has been absent from his seat since April 12 because of his illness. Two weeks ago his staff acknowledged that Knight was ill and would not give a date on his return to the Senate.
"Besides being a war hero, he was truly somebody who wanted to protect our freedoms and he did that very courageously," said Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster.
Knight earned the nickname "The Fastest Man Alive" after flying an X-15 rocket plane at Mach 6.7 -- 4,520 mph -- on Oct. 3, 1967, a speed record for fixed-wing aircraft that still stands.
Like that flight, Knight's accomplishments seemed larger than life.
He spent 32 years as an Air Force officer. He was a test pilot and flew in combat, logging 253 missions in a F-100 Super Sabre over Vietnam in 1968. He flew experimental aircraft, which earned him astronaut wings.
"He was the type of person whose actions spoke louder than his words. I always considered it an honor to represent him because of that," said Hesperia Mayor Tad Honeycutt, who served as a field representative to Knight during his first term in the state Senate.
Knight, whose 17th Senatorial District included most of the Victor Valley, was first elected to state Senate in 1996, after serving as a city councilman and mayor of Palmdale.
He gained notoriety as the author of Proposition 22, which defined marriage in California as between one man and one woman. Californians passed the measure in 2000 by 61.4 percent.
"He had extraordinary integrity. Everybody knew he said what he meant and meant what he said. You could always count on his forthrightness, even if you didn't always agree with it," said Runner.
When Runner first decided to run for the Assembly, she first sought the support of Knight. Runner said he was among the first to endorse her, and went so far as to ask others in the Senate to support her as well.
"He went above and beyond what he needed to do with his endorsement. He was like a father figure in the way he encouraged my commitment," Runner said.
On Thursday, Runner met with a member of Knight's staff during a prayer breakfast. She said he had visited with Knight at the hospital the previous evening and was "quite somber and very emotional knowing how serious (Knight's) his condition was and what was going on."
State legislative rules specify that Knight's office will remain vacant until the November election. Runner said Knight's bills will continue to move forward in committee and his staff will continue to assist his constituents.
Knight could not run for Senate again in November because of term limits.
Runners husband, former Assemblyman George Runner, said he will meet with Knight's staff next week to offer encouragement and support.
"He was the kind of man who was committed to his efforts and work. Many people call him a 'hero.' I see him as a true patriot," said George Runner, former assemblyman and candidate for the state Senate seat in District 17.
Governor Arnold Schwarzanegger on Saturday directed flags to fly at half-staff over the Capitol.
"Today we are saddened by the death of an extraordinary man," the governor said. "Senator Knight's memory will live on through his lifelong contributions to our nation's aerospace communities and our state's public affairs."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Gretchen Losi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 951-6233.