Leadership Profile: William Franklin “Frank” Knox
William Franklin “Frank” Knox may have gotten a C in Chemistry, but that didn’t stop him from living a life filled with explosive examples of leadership.
Knox, who was born in Boston, moved to Grand Rapids as a child. While delivering newspapers to add to his family’s income, he honed his love of news and devotion to hard work.
When he arrived at Alma College’s campus in 1893, he had $25 to his name. To pay for his schooling, he waited tables, gardened and even painted cereal advertisements on barns in Gratiot County.
When he wasn’t painting barns, he was painting horses. He was the alleged mastermind behind a prank involving professor Joseph T. Ewing’s horse, which went missing and reappeared on campus with zebra stripes.
Though it may be difficult to imagine creatures other than squirrels roaming the college, Knox was much like students of today—he was a member of the football and baseball teams, involved in the Zeta Sigma fraternity and president of the Athletic Association.
His leadership extended farther than the city limits, though. He once gathered all the boys on campus in the chapel to talk to them about the patriotic duty he felt in regards to the Spanish-American War. He recruited roughly a dozen of them to join him in enlisting in the Army. He left the College 15 credits away from graduation.
After fighting alongside Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, Knox returned home, where his interest in journalism persevered. Within a few years, he worked his way from reporter to circulation manager of the Grand Rapids Herald, doubling the number of readers along the way.
He dreamed of a newspaper of his own, though. In 1902, he bought the weekly paper in Sault Ste. Marie, turning it into a daily and forcing its competitor to sell out to him. His success in the industry continued, as he became general manager of Hearst newspapers.
The crowning glory of his journalism career came, however, with the purchase of the Chicago Daily News, whose only rival in the field of foreign news was The New York Times. As publisher, Knox exposed Chicago rackets and corrupt politicians. With his bold and sometimes controversial statements, he carved out a role in the political arena.
He was campaign manager during Chase Osborn’s successful run for governor of Michigan and supported many other candidates throughout the years. His involvement in politics wasn’t just behind the scenes, though. He was widely considered the best prospect within the Republican Party to run for president in 1936.
On the drive home from the Republican National Convention, where Alf Landon had been announced instead as the nominee, Knox and his wife learned from a radio broadcast that Knox was the party’s choice for vice president.
When he visited Alma on the campaign trail that year, 20,000 people showed up at his homecoming. Though he and Landon lost in the election to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who carried every state but two, Knox gained admiration from the president. He was named Secretary of the Navy in 1940.
Knox directed the largest navy in the world during this critical time of war. He was responsible for increasing navy personnel from 190,000 members to well over 3 million within four years. He also traveled over 200,000 miles to build goodwill and boost morale.
Throughout his life, Knox’s affection for Alma College never wavered. In 1912, the Board of Trustees conferred a bachelor’s degree upon him. He would go on to become a member of that board, facing heartbreaking decisions, like the year faculty salaries had to be cut.
It was something that hit Knox hard, so when he was able to, he not only restored the salaries, but he also paid back the amounts faculty had lost since the time their salaries had been cut.
He also used his influence to implement the V-12 Navy Training Program on campus, which greatly enabled the college to continue operation during World War II.
Upon Knox’s death in 1944, Winston Churchill wrote to Knox’s wife, saying, “No one could have been more helpful in all our difficult times.”
Alma College can say the same about Knox, who provided the College with his brilliant generosity and humor throughout the years, never failing to remember where he painted barns.