The Wisconsin Commanders of the Rite Honor
A Bridge and a Pillar
|Sovereign Grand Inspector General Marshall E. Tharpe (l-r), President
Grand Inspector General Ralph A. Sirmons Sr., Grand Inspector General
Walter Knight, State Representative Sheila Stubbs,
Deputy of the Orient of Wisconsin Most Illustrious Commander in Chief
William R. Stark
By Jonathan Gramling
Walter Knight, Beloit city council member for 13 years and executive director of the Rock
County Occupation Industrialization Center for over 30 years, has played a unique role in
Beloit’s history. He has been a pillar of the Black community and an important bridge
between the Black community and greater Beloit.
Knight moved to the Beloit area in 1951 and began to work at Fairbanks Morse, which
built engines and generators for the federal government. He rose through the ranks to
become the president of the United Steel Workers of America Local 1533. This also made
him a leader in the Black community.
“We had a Black men’s organization called Black Resource Personnel,” Knight recalled in
a phone interview. “That unit had posts like education, government, community services,
political action and employment and training. The group was structured with a convener
who headed up the entire group. And then each one of the components had leaders to head
up that particular division. Of course, I was targeted to head up the employment and training division of that organization. That’s where I got my start getting involved
in education and employment and training.”
When the Conductors, an organization of Black women in Beloit, went to Chicago for a conference, they came back with the idea of forming an OIC in Beloit.
“Of course, they called the Black Resource Personnel group and set up a meeting to talk about the possibility,” Knight said. “Since I was an employee of Fairbanks
Morse during that time and part of the union, I happened to be targeted to assist them in coordinating the idea of getting an OIC here. Once those ideas and plans
were put in place, the base for OIC began. I happened to be a part of that formation group and assisted them in getting that OIC operation going. I was president of the
union at that time at Fairbanks. When I left the union, I went into personnel and employee relations. He asked me if I would go ahead and help coordinate the OIC
operation. I took that on as a full-time function with the company backing me.”
In 1976, Knight became the executive director of OIC and over the course of the next 30 years or so, Knight worked closely with Fairbanks Morse and other
companies in Beloit to train approximately 3,000 adults and 3,000 youth for employment with over 80 percent of the adults finding employment after the training.
“We did have a big impact on Beloit,” Knight said. “We had over 100 adults per year go through the education and training component. With the young people, it was
a different kind of program than the adults, although they had some similar characteristics. The main characteristic was a holistic approach, self-preservation. We
found that the biggest downfall in people is their attitude. We always told them that there is only one difference between people is their attitude. The big difference is if
it’s positive or negative. They accepted those challenges and we had great success because of the support that we had from the employers. I have a list of
employers, about 40, who were on our team. They not only supported through finances, but they also would support us by hiring people for jobs. And it worked out
Knight also answered the call of the Black community to provide leadership when they were looking for someone to run for the city council. He served two terms as
president of the council, during which he helped get the present-day city hall built. He also served as chairman of the Governor's Committee on Minority Business
Development, president of the Beloit Breakfast Optimist Club International, and National Human Resource Committee - National League of Cities - Washington, D.C.
The city of Beloit recently named a bridge after Knight in honor of his service to the community. They also named another bridge after Ken Hendricks, a real estate
developer with whom Knight collaborated with for many years.
“The naming a bridge after me was a surprise,” Knight said. “They’ve been working on this thing for a year, I understand. Everyone knew about it except me. I didn’t
know about it until they announced it at the big meeting. It surprised me. I didn’t think that my service was that important to the community. I just did what I thought
Knight was also honored in Madison March 9 and received a plaque honoring his service from State Representative Shelia Stubbs who calls Knight her uncle and
The Wisconsin Commanders of the Rite, a Masonic organization.
While the OIC closed its doors in 2010, Knight still looks after the building, which was sold on a land contract. Outside of that, he has retired.
“I did my service,” Knight said. “I don’t do much anymore. I don’t drive anymore. Now I use my “Uber driver,” my daughter. I call her and she takes me and brings me
back. It’s been an enjoyable ride.”
Yes it has.