Grace F. Knoche: A Personal Reminiscence

By Will Thackara1

Published in Theosophical History, April 2006, pp. 11-15

We called her Grace and she was the truest of friends. I first met her in November 1968. I had been introduced to theosophy some months before by my next door neighbor, Doug Russell, and in the natural unfolding of karma was invited to meet with James A. Long, the Theosophical Society's leader at that time. Grace was Jim's personal secretary, and on that first visit she sat unobtrusively nearby, a stenographer's pad in hand and her pencil quietly racing line by line down the pages as we spoke. I later learned from Doug that Jim's conversations sometimes elicited material or topics useful for publication in Sunrise magazine and for discussion groups. Grace's job was to record and transcribe such meetings — skills she had learned as a student at the Point Loma theosophical headquarters where she was born (her parents, Grace Green and J. Frank Knoche, were staff members). I was particularly impressed when Doug mentioned her 100-word-a-minute typing ability and, as a 22-year-old new to theosophical ideas, I thought how amazing was the karma which provided Jim with such an accomplished secretary! In the course of the next few years, I learned that Grace had also worked in various secretarial and editorial capacities with Jim's predecessors, Gottfried de Purucker and Arthur L. Conger, not to mention her student contribution during Katherine Tingley's time.

Then there was the violin. Every young child at Point Loma was given a musical instrument and enrolled in the schools' music program. As a teenager, Grace was invited to play 4th violin in the principal orchestra (Walter Damrosch, director of the New York Symphony Orchestra, had earlier conducted it and praised its musicianship). She eventually became 1st violin and soloist — one of the most thrilling experiences of her life. I never heard her play, but she said that early in her adult life she relinquished any thought of a musical career: "There are plenty of violinists in the world, but not so many people working for theosophy." Even so, as she once related to one of our TS staff, G. de Purucker had advised her not to give up her music entirely: that there were many ways — none mutually exclusive — in which an individual could serve theosophy. She came to realize that if a person is a musician, then to deny that part of themselves, however noble the reason, is to "deny a vital part of their own soul."

When Grace became leader in 1971, it was as natural as the changing seasons. I had earlier asked Jim Long about his successor and his reply was simple and straightforward. He said he didn't know who it would be, and wouldn't know until the moment he died; if he did, he would unconsciously try to prepare that individual, which would be exactly the wrong thing to do. Life will train that individual and life will select him or her. It really wasn't a matter of choice. Given Grace's integrity, it is clear that she would never have accepted that responsibility unless she were unmistakably certain it was hers (see her article, "Publication of the K.T.M.G. Papers," The Theosophical Forum, February 1948, pp. 68-74).

Grace was then 62 years old. Her lifelong study of theosophy and its history was as complete as anyone's. She had worked closely with three leaders, had taught Hebrew, Greek, Sanskrit, violin, sculpture, and painting in the Point Loma schools, lectured for the TS, written many theosophical articles, helped edit Sunrise magazine, and had traveled extensively visiting members worldwide — a lengthy apprenticeship by any standard. Which brings to mind another conversation with Doug Russell. It was early 1974 and we were driving to the mountains we both loved. I had been thinking of Grace and, knowing that Doug's work as a management consultant had brought him in contact with many business executives and other leaders (he was an officer in the Young Presidents Organization), I asked him what essential quality characterized the best of them. He replied instantly that in his experience genuine leadership is born from service and learning to be a good follower. This has nothing to do with servitude, but in order to be effective in leadership, one must first know how to serve others. He didn't know any real leader who hadn't been seasoned by a rigorous career of service and its accompanying component of duty. And the best leaders had served those who were themselves servers. As for Grace, Doug simply said — and still maintains — that she had "the executive ability to run any corporation." As I reflect on her life today, her 97 years of service was unconditional, entirely without strings or personal ambition. She lived the advice of ancient sages: "to be as nothing in the eyes of the world."

Compassion, intelligence, generosity, wisdom, humility, strength, patience, and sparkling humor: Grace exemplified these qualities and much more in her leadership, which continues now through her writings, our shared memories of her, and through her impress on the thought atmosphere of the world. Yet Grace was so very accessible and human in her approach, recognizing that however imperfect we might be, we are all at some level striving to be better human beings. She encouraged self-initiative in taking responsibility for the duties that are ours, reminding us that we are part of an eternal fellowship that embraces the cosmos, and that no great task is ever accomplished single-handedly.

Her greatest help often came in small packages, such as a card or letter which somehow gave a key to handling difficult situations, or just made you feel good about yourself. Years ago, she wrote on a slip of paper, now tattered with age, the words of Benjamin Disraeli, English Prime Minister to Queen Victoria: "The secret of success is constancy to purpose." One secret of Grace's success — actually no secret as she mentioned it to others — was that she always tried to work with the best in a person, leaving them to handle their own shortcomings. More often than not, a few encouraging words became a lifelong protective talisman. "When you're at the end of your rope," she once said, "hang on!" Then take one step at a time, focus on the task or duty to hand and give it your best effort. Life will never shoulder us with a burden beyond our capacity, however painful or difficult. And if we do our part, we will be helped. Such is nature's economy.

One of the penalties of leadership is to be a lightning rod for criticism. Grace's basic approach was fairly simple: she said the front door was always open to frank and candid discussion, but she counseled us to ignore gossip and erroneous hearsay, as reaction to these depletes resources and diverts attention from our creative work for brotherhood. There were of course notable exceptions, as for instance Peter Washington's prejudiced and misinformed account of H. P. Blavatsky and other theosophical leaders which called for a published reply (Notes on "Madame Blavatsky's Baboon"); also Vernon Harrison's rebuttal of the 1885 Hodgson Report in H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR. On the other hand, Grace was always generous with visiting researchers and scholars, giving them access to library and archival material, even helping them with their manuscripts, knowing well that a strictly academic approach would not likely provide insight into the inner purposes of theosophy or its history. About which she would sometimes comment with the words of Seneca: "Time discovers truth."

A large portion of Grace's time was devoted to expanding the Society's publishing through Theosophical University Press, focusing on the modern classics of theosophy. During her tenure, The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky was reprinted four times, none of them short runs, and full text versions of virtually all TUP titles were made freely available on the Society's website (www.theosociety.org). Grace's own books and articles are a testament to the practicality of theosophy as a guiding wisdom that one can truly live by. To Light a Thousand Lamps: A Theosophic Vision will undoubtedly remain one of the best introductory works, and I've heard several long-time theosophists — thinking they were beyond the basics — express astonishment and appreciation as to how powerfully the book spoke directly to their need. Then there is Sunrise magazine with which Grace was closely associated since its founding by James Long in 1951. Through her gifted editing, Grace not only encouraged us to write, but she taught us how to write — at least better than we did. Sunrise continues as a contemporary outreach to the general public, offering theosophic perspectives on scientific, religious, and philosophic themes and their application to daily living.

Aside from literary and administrative work, public meetings, study groups, personal conversations, and an immense written correspondence, Grace fostered cordial relations between various theosophical organizations, recognizing that while philosophical teachings and approaches may differ, we share the common goals of universal brotherhood and the amelioration of the causes of suffering. Perhaps the most visible highlight of cooperative work was the theosophical presentation at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, jointly organized by TS Adyar, the United Lodge of Theosophists, and TS Pasadena. Grace fondly remembered that everyone came together not as members of separate organizations, but as theosophists and friends. It worked — and it continues to work.

Over the last decade or so, Grace increasingly delegated responsibilities to the younger staff, knowing that her time to leave would inevitably come. "I wouldn't wish anyone to live to 100!" she often said. But she knew that departure dates were in the hands of karma, and she would do her job until then. One of her lasts tasks was to complete final corrections of her forthcoming book, Theosophy in the Qabbalah. On her 97th birthday, about a week after falling ill, we learned that Grace was dying. It so happened that on the same day the book's cover designer, Patrice Hughes, who was quite unaware of Grace's illness, brought over a proposed design (she was attending a theosophical study group that evening). About 9:30 pm I took it over to Grace's house and asked if she were up to one more item of Press business. Of course she was. There on her bed, she looked approvingly at the design, but pointed to a line of small type, asking what it said (she didn't have her glasses on). "That's your name, Grace, except for a minor typo. It reads: Grace M. Knoche." She replied, "Well, you be sure to fix it." She thanked me, and I know she was grateful to Patrice. That was our last conversation; goodbyes were unnecessary.

Two nights later, I left my house in a driving rain storm on the way to a public meeting, a Friday Evening Discussion at our headquarters Library Center. The subject was reincarnation. Just as I stepped out, there was a lightning flash followed by long rolling thunder. I thought to myself, Grace was born at Point Loma in a driving rain storm — it would be just like her to leave in one. And so it was, a little more than seven hours afterwards.

A week later, an overflowing roomful of members and friends gathered at the Library Center to celebrate Grace's life. Librarian Jim Belderis opened the meeting announcing that there would be no prepared speeches or eulogies, but invited all of us to share memories and tributes. These he would supplement by reading emails from those near and abroad who could not attend.

The stories were many and diverse, moving and humorous, touching and profound. In all of them we recognized the Grace that each of us knew. One of the first people to speak, an artist, recalled Grace telling her to "bloom where you are planted." An aerospace engineer began, "I was first introduced to Grace in 1972 through the pages of Sunrise . . . " and then emotion overwhelmed him — though everyone heard his untold story. A health care executive said she'd known Grace all her life, but had been asleep for 52 years until she read Grace's book, To Light a Thousand Lamps, which woke her up. A guest lecturer at the Friday Evening Discussions said how he looked forward to these meetings because Grace's impromptu comments would somehow round out and clarify what he himself had been unable to express. Grace's hairdresser of the last 30 years spoke of her warm and endearing friendship. And a Mormon friend told us of how Grace had read the Book of Mormon with her. An International Red Cross worker related how Grace had encouraged him to follow his own life path as an independent theosophist, noting that some time later she'd seen him on TV helping with disaster relief. She'd phoned afterwards, saying how pleased she was to see him "doing his karma." One recurring theme in the stories and emails was how Grace instilled trust: trust in ourselves, in the future of the TS, and in the inherent goodness of humanity despite our problems.

Grace often used the metaphor of an Oriental rug to illustrate how we might handle our human imperfections. When a mistake was made, the weaver would not remove it, but work it into the pattern. I believe the metaphor has another application as well. Since Grace's passing, many have expressed how much they will miss her, and it's only natural to feel sorrow when a such a true friend and mentor leaves us outwardly. Yet the truth is that Grace has woven a portion of herself into the fabric of our lives, and that will remain with us always.

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1. Will Thackara joined the headquarters staff of The Theosophical Society, Pasadena, in 1972. He is manager of Theosophical University Press and a contributing writer for Sunrise: Theosophic Perspectives.


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