Remembering Herb Knapp

Herb was my friend. Herb was my teacher. Herb is gone. I miss Herb.

My wife, Wendy, and I met Herb and Faith at a party in Little Silver, NJ, hosted by Pat and Stan Rice, the parents of a friend of my son, Scotty. My ears perked up when I learned that he was a physician. I was curious about things medical and here was someone who could answer my questions. Herb’s ears perked up when he learned that I was a Bell Labs engineer and especially when he learned that I developed software for an AT&T computer he owned, the UNIX PC. He was curious about things computer and I was someone who could answer his questions.

And so began a friendship that lasted at least twenty-five years, maybe as much as thirty as I don’t remember the exact year of the party. We had an unspoken agreement that he would teach me medicine and I would teach him computers. He gave me stacks of the New England Journal of Medicine and I probably gave him computer books or, at least, online references.

In some ways we were a bit of an odd couple. He was twenty years my senior, a physician, a Jewish atheist. That alone was a point of much fascination to me as he taught me about the distinction between religious faith and religious culture. I was twenty years his junior, an Irish Catholic (practicing, not necessarily believing) and an engineer – hard science, not the soft science of biology. But I have long suspected that it was the age difference that was a strong part my attraction to him. I lost my dad when I was thirteen and sometimes find myself seeking friendship of men a generation older, not as a replacement for my dad but as an exemplar of what my dad may have been like as he aged. While Herb was younger than my dad he was definitely a generation older than I.

Over those years we were together a little in person. Herb and Faith came to our New Year’s Eve parties. Wendy and I visited them in Long Branch and later in Vermont and New Hampshire, he would sometimes stop by for a dinner on his trips back to NJ, and I visited his office in Asbury a few times. A doctor’s office cabinet from there now holds machine tools in my shop and I weigh myself on his office scale every morning. I remember a very expensive, infra-red camera in that office that he was using in an exploration of new diagnostic techniques.

Our real friendship, however, developed telephonically. We would spend hours on the phone talking about computers, medicine, politics, who knows what. Some of those calls were more of a monologue with Herb going off on one his long rants about Republicans, the sorry state of computer documentation, or the way young doctors practice medicine. On those calls I tried patiently (sometimes) or not so patiently (other times) to explain details about programming or the Linux operating system. Despite clear frustrations at times Herb accomplished a great deal with computers, writing his own accounting software long before I met him and later with his UNIX PC and even later with Linux software. While most doctors of his generation wanted nothing to do with computers (even current ones only grudgingly accept them), he embraced them and recognized their value to his work.

Herb was brilliant in medicine and well beyond. I’ve had a fascination not so much with WWII itself but with the immediate aftermath of the war. Herb was in Europe during that period and would often talk about it, answering my many questions. The lesson I remember best, though, concerns marriage. Herb astutely observed two components to marriage – civil and religious – a point obvious in hindsight but one I never thought about until Herb pointed it out. By separating the two the state can deal with the legal, contractual aspects of marriage consistent across all faiths – taxes, property ownership, visitation rights – and the religious can deal with faith-specific ceremony. A brilliant approach to gay marriage issues. We had many other such conversations. The specifics of most are long buried in my mind but what remains forefront is the impression of a clear thinking, if sometimes a bit angry, brilliant take on world events.

And then there was the chair. I remember the chair. I sat in the chair. We had long, long conversations as Herb talked about the the development of the chair, the difficulty finding and working with manufacturers for the chair, of finding people to market it. I had no involvement with the chair but I remember Herb’s almost quixotic passion as he pursued it. Sadly, it never came to pass.

Herb was very proud of his diagnostic skills. One story he told of how he started his diagnosis the moment the patient walked in the door – how the patient stood, walked, looked. And then he listened to the patient. “Doc, something is not quite right.” While some doctors might dismiss that line Herb pursued it and with some prodding, some questioning, he was able to pull out of the patient what was really going on. All of this before he got to the clinical stuff: blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, etc. Herb also had a bimodal persona, his usual-self and his doctor-self. Most of my medical questions were answered by his usual-self. But when I had a specific question about myself or a family member he put on his doctors hat, his voice changed, became more serious, and he became his doctor-self. That’s when I started to worry.

While I would never ask Herb for medical care – our relationship was that of friends, not patient / doctor, I respected that distinction and wanted to keep it that way – I never hesitated to ask Herb for a medical explanation or understanding.

One such conversation took place a few years ago. My daughter, Becky, was in the hospital with abdominal distress. Her doctors were pointing fingers at each other, “it’s your problem, no, it’s your problem” as test results mounted but no one wanted to operate. Herb was in New Hampshire yelling at me “it’s a surgical belly, it’s a surgical belly, have them open her up”. With his encouragement (actually a lot stronger than encouragement) I was about to start yelling at her doctors myself when one finally recognized the urgency and a satisfactory resolution followed. I am grateful to have had a doctor-friend with whom I could discuss things like this.

Another such conversation could have, should have, occurred just the other day. Wendy fell off her bike and landed on her arm, a minor mishap on the scale of accident trauma but painful nonetheless. Her fall was exactly the kind of thing we would discuss. “What is a contusion? Why no bruising” How long to heal?” Unfortunately, Herb was gone. No such conversations any longer. It’s only been a couple of weeks but I’m already missing him.

While our friendship grew on the phone it was also the phone, or really the absence thereof, that gave indication of Herb’s decline. Until a few years ago he would call every few weeks to every few days, sometimes even several times a day if he was in the middle of a project. When the calls became less frequent I thought his interests had changed or because he bought an Apple computer. (I don’t talk Apple and Apple owners rarely need help.) In hindsight it was more. I might drop him a line – “haven’t heard from you in a while, how are things going” – and he might phone back but he wasn’t the same feisty Herb that I remembered from before. The decline had started but I didn’t recognize it. I didn’t realize it until the email from Faith a few weeks ago. Less than two weeks later he was gone.

I have lost a friend. I have lost a teacher. I miss Herb.


About wrwetzel

Retired EE / software developer. Hacker Maker Photographer Musician
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