By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — In 100 years that have shown extreme courage in World War II and a lifetime of commitment to her church and community, Jill Knappenberger will celebrate that century in her home church.
Knappenberger, a lifetime member at Emmanuel Memorial in Champaign, has been working on the church’s collectible eggs since the 1950s. She will be honored at an open house at her church from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, her 100th birthday.
Emmanuel Memorial is at 208 W. University Ave. No gifts are asked, but cards are welcome.
“People can talk to her. She has always been able to talk very eloquently about all her experiences,” said Nancy Johnson, an organizer.
Knappenberger was in her Champaign apartment last week, surrounded by the photographs she has taken with her camera — going back 60 years.
Her memory is so sharp that she can remember the unit numbers where she served coffee, doughnuts, cigarettes and gum to soldiers at the front. She served 22 months in the war.
Wearing a bracelet that shows her Red Cross Clubmobile, Knappenberger has done heavy lifting in her century.
To show for those years: an Honor Flight, five Army battle stars, a Nazi flag she brought back from the war, a senior member of the Altar Guild Easter Egg team and selling real estate to raise money for her church’s new education wing.
Even in recent years, she has donated blood and worked for church fund-raisers.
A University of Illinois alumna, she dropped out for a couple years to graduate from the American Red Cross School at American University in 1943.
Knappenberger volunteered to be an American Red Cross Clubmobile driver — boosting morale with coffee and doughnuts and her vivacious personality.
“Gen. (Dwight) Eisenhower said there was nothing more important than keeping up the morale at the front,” she said.
She was there partly in support of her twin bother, Jack.
Back when she was born, there were no sonograms. Her father had decided a boy would be named John, and called Jack.
“And Jill came tumbling down,” he telegraphed when she was born.
The twins were close, even when things went wrong.
“My grandfather said Jack could use a .22, but don’t point it at anybody,” she said. “I was doing cartwheels and rolled right in front of him.”
The result: a broken collar bone, one of the few health issues she’s ever had.
“Siblings are close, but twins are even closer,” Knappenberger said.
After being on the largest convoy ever landed in England, her unit landed on Utah Beach during the last week of July, then was attached to the Eighth Corps, Third Army.
They advanced with them through northern France. The “doughgirls” visited hospitals and foxholes to raise morale.
She worked in semi-safety until Dec. 16, the first day of the Battle of the Bulge. In the siege, it was Knappenberger who brought hot coffee and doughnuts and cigarettes to soldiers freezing in the forest.
But soon, she and the troops were completely cut off from food, ammunition and communication. The siege would last for six days.
That’s when the twin suffered her worst tragedy.
At 26, she found out that Jack had arrived from England and moved up into Germany. She earned two days’ leave just before the battle.
“I was blessed to see him for a bit. I said, ‘See you soon,'” she said.
On Dec. 16, the German counter-offensive began.
“It was in the coldest winter in years,” she remembered. “And the Germans were all around us.”
Jack Pitts died during the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, shortly after visiting with her in Germany. He is buried in the military cemetery in Luxembourg.
“It was shrapnel. He died instantly,” his twin said.
Her Clubmobile was the only one to be swallowed up in the Battle of the Bulge. She and a couple other Red Cross workers escaped to safety.
She said the most important memory in her life was marrying her husband, T. Gaillard Knappenberger Jr., a lawyer.
The “best years of my life” came while she was married to Mr. Knappenberger, whom she first met in 1949 while working on her degree at the UI. She even changed political parties for him.
They married in 1953. He died in 1988.
‘Hanging in there’
She said Mr. Knappenberger was a lawyer with a sense of fun. He was an alto saxophone player, had his own group and even sang in a barbershop quartet.
Another family achievement she’s proud of: her parents, four grandparents and aunts and uncles were all college graduates.
Even with all the fear, joy and friendship of the war years, Knappenberger does not consider them the greatest memories
She’s been to all 50 states, and 98 countries, done church work and given back to almost every aspect of the community.
All the while, she remained slender and active.
Knappenberger played golf until her 80s. She’s an accomplished painter and photographer. She has served on boards that include the Spurlock Museum and Krannert Art Museum.
“I’ve always liked to be busy,” she said.
And “I’m hanging in there,” she joked.
Longtime University of Illinois Alumni Association Lou Liay said there will be a special, very visual marker not more than a few hundred yards from the church.
“Her birthday wishes will be on the marquee of the Virginia Theatre. She made a wonderful contribution in honor of her late husband to restore the famous organ,” he said.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at email@example.com.