Max Knittel is retiring this Thanksgiving after working for 44 years at Western as the Physics and Astronomy department’s engineering technician lead. As impressive as that sounds, Knittel’s time on the WWU campus began even earlier.
Knittel attended summer kindergarten at the Campus School in Miller Hall around 1955 while his mother taught in several smaller communities in Washington, placing him on campus more than 60 years ago.
Knittel later returned to the area when he was in junior high while his mother earned her bachelor’s degree in Education and taught elementary school in Bellingham. Knittel would return again for his own education from Western and graduate in 1971 with his bachelor’s degree in Physics.
Knittel was drawn back to Western yet again in December, 1975 to begin work as an engineering technician after a stint at the Naval Undersea Center in San Diego and as a senior engineer at Boeing in Renton.
During his tenure, Knittel hired and supervised student lab assistants, designed and set up labs, as well as constructed, maintained and repaired the department’s complex scientific equipment.
“I’ve always described my job as Christmas at the hobby shop,” Knittel said. “I got to investigate new equipment, order it, set it up and then help people learn how to use it.”
During his time at Western, Knittel saw his department move twice — first, when he was a freshman, the department moved from Haggard Hall to Bond Hall in 1968. It moved again when he was an employee in 2004 to the Communications Facility, where it remains today.
The department’s location wasn’t the only thing to have changed in his time at the university.
“I remember as a student, you could check out the key to Western’s mainframe computer and run programs at night before payroll would run in the morning,'' Knittel said. “We still maintain equipment with vacuum tubes that was here before I started.”
Janelle Leger, the Physics and Astronomy Department chair, remembers getting a tour of campus in 2008 during her on-campus interview for a faculty position in the department.
“After Max finished describing to me all of the myriad tasks that he is responsible for in the department, I said ‘Wow - what happens when you get sick?’ His reply - ‘I don't get sick,’” she said.
“We will miss Max deeply, not only because of his important role, but because he’s such a great person to work with,” Leger said. “We wish him the best in his new adventures.”
Knittel said he plans to stay in the Bellingham area, invest time in his hobbies and community, and devote much of his free time to restoring his collection of vintage cars and repairing audio components from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Knittel said. “The things I do won’t be too different — it’ll just be without students.”