By Jeremy Ogul | Editor
Lee Knutson’s passion for community was so strong that it is difficult to find a civic institution or organization he was not involved in at some point over the past 55 years.
Knutson served as La Mesa’s city attorney for decades, was president of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, was president of the La Mesa Rotary Club, managed political campaigns and led numerous other professional and civic organizations.
But more than anything else, friends and colleagues remember him as an exceptionally affable man.
“He was everybody’s friend,” said Duane Palmer, Knutson’s friend and doctor for 50 years. “His favorite comment was ‘my friend,’ or ‘thank you, my friend.’ It was a friendship that he had with everybody.”
Knutson, 85, died peacefully Dec. 13 at LakeView Hospice Residence in La Mesa, a facility he helped raise funds to open in the early 2000s. The cause of death was lung cancer, said his daughter, Beth Silvey.
LeRoy “Lee” Wayne Knutson was born Aug. 7, 1929 in the rural town of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, to Elmer Knutson and Hilma (Maki) Knutson. His parents were the children of Scandinavian immigrants; his father was a handyman who made a living doing odd jobs around town. He was their only child.
After graduating from Ladysmith High School in 1947, Knutson enlisted in the Army with his cousin and was sent to Germany, where he worked in a medical laboratory at the 98th General Hospital in Munich. There, he met his wife, JoAnn, whom he married in 1952.
Knutson was discharged in 1952 and attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree, which he earned in 1957. Having visited JoAnn’s parents in San Diego County, the couple decided to move to here.
“We had some pretty bad snow storms [in Wisconsin],” JoAnn said. “If you shovel snow you know why you like to live in southern California.”
Knutson worked as a trust officer at First National Bank until he passed the California bar exam. Gilbert Harelson, then La Mesa’s city attorney, invited Knutson in 1961 to join his La Mesa law firm, Harelson Enright Levitt. As a result, Knutson became assistant city attorney. In 1970, Harelson was appointed Superior Court judge, and Knutson stepped up as city attorney. He remained in the position until 1993.
As city attorney, Knutson advised the City Council and city manager on legal matters and represented the city in negotiations with other parties. In 1988, for example, he helped the city negotiate an agreement to get a toxic gas manufacturer to leave the city. A couple years later, he helped the city fight a court ruling that banned the use of the Mt. Helix cross on city insignia.
“Like any successful attorney, he was smart, hardworking and had absolute trust and integrity,” said Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer, who was an attorney and partner in Knutson’s firm for 26 years before joining the judicial bench. “He had a wonderful reputation. I don’t know of anybody who didn’t like him.”
Knutson enjoyed political life. He managed the congressional campaigns of Clair Burgener, who represented the area in the California Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1972, 1976 and 1980.
“Lee liked working in the background capacity of helping him out,” JoAnn Knutson said.
Knutson also supported Pete Wilson’s campaigns. He was a close friend of Edwin Meese, chief of staff to Gov. Ronald Reagan and later U.S. Attorney General. The two met as neighbors in a hillside neighborhood off Avocado Avenue.
“He was a model public servant and he represented La Mesa with distinction,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
Knutson co-chaired the campaign for Proposition G, the $247 million general obligation bond to support the expansion of Grossmont Hospital. He served stints on the advisory boards of the Automobile Club of Southern California, the San Diego Opera and the San Diego County Bar Association. He was president of the Foothills Bar Association, president of the local Estate Planning Council and secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Bar Association. He also served on the board of Langley Corp., an aircraft parts manufacturer.
Family members attribute his success to his love of people.
“He was just a people person,” said daughter Beth Silvey. “I always joke around and say that if my dad hadn’t been an attorney he would have been a good talk show host.”
Knutson is survived by his wife, JoAnn; daughters Vicki Wallace and Sarah Buskirk of El Cajon; daughter Beth Silvey of Altadena, California; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A public memorial service will be held Jan. 17, 2015, at 2 p.m. at First Lutheran Church, 867 South Lincoln Avenue, El Cajon. The family will gather for a private interment at Singing Hills Memorial Park before the afternoon memorial service.