Phillip McKnight, a more than 20-year veteran of the Greenport road department, died Saturday at age 54, following a long bout with cancer.
“What a tragedy,” said a saddened Greenport Mayor David Nyce. “He always looked like he was getting stronger and better. I found him inspirational to be around. It’s a loss — it’s a real loss.”
Mr. McKnight was thrust into the public spotlight because of his ordeal and the added crisis of losing health coverage.
In 2006, after he had been treated for a sarcoma tumor in his left thigh, Mr. McKnight was unable to work. Steve Brautigam, village treasurer at that time, credited then-mayor Dave Kapell and Village Board members with working out a system that enabled Mr. McKnight to continue on the payroll — and maintain his health insurance — by using vacation and sick time accrued by his fellow workers.
But that time ran out just before Thanksgiving that year, leaving Mr. McKnight without a job or health coverage.
The public first learned of his situation in April 2007, when Mr. McKnight told his story to The Suffolk Times. He was prompted to talk because the sitting Village Board had just approved 100 percent paid health insurance coverage for life for Mr. Kapell and his family. Mr. Kapell had been mayor since 1994 and previously served as a trustee, village development director and on various village boards since the 1980s.
While Mr. McKnight was grateful to his colleagues for having given up their vacation and sick time, he said, “The administration — I didn’t see where they dug deep” to help him in a severe crisis.
Reading about Mr. McKnight’s plight, longtime village resident Josephine Watkins Johnson, who now lives at Peconic Landing, prevailed on Mayor Nyce, who took office in April 2007, to take action to restore Mr. McKnight’s medical benefits. The village did restore it but it had to be paid for privately.
Ms. Watkins Johnson formed a group to raise money to pay the premiums and assist the McKnight family with bills that had accumulated after he lost his job. Mr. McKnight eventually became eligible for Medicaid.
“He was the most rewarding person that I have ever done fundraising for in the community,” Ms. Watkins Johnson said. She called it “unbelievable” the way the community responded.
“It was a pleasure having the honor of working for someone like Phil. He is deeply loved,” she said.
By the time Mr. McKnight left his job with the village, he was earning $17 an hour.
“I suppose I should have saved some,” he said at the time, “but with five children, that wasn’t possible.”
He and his wife, Loretta, had five adopted children who ranged in age then from 7 to 20.
Mr. Kapell’s lifetime benefits were rescinded by the incoming Village Board, led by Mr. Nyce, an action that remains in litigation.
Ms. Watkins Johnson is now working with parishioners at Shiloh Baptist Church in Southold to raise money for a stained-glass window that will be dedicated to Mr. McKnight. Contributions should be sent to Friends of Phil McKnight and mailed to Shiloh Baptist Church, P.O. Box 201, Southold, NY 11971.
Mr. McKnight’s obituary appears on page 12.