2015 Archives

SMU remembers longtime Dedman Law Professor Joseph W. McKnight and his inspiring Texas family law work

December 1, 2015

Joseph Webb McKnight
Joseph Webb McKnight

DALLAS (SMU) — Joseph Webb McKnight, who taught at SMU Dedman School of Law for nearly six decades and helped train legions of young lawyers in Texas family law, died Nov. 30 in Dallas at age 90.

While McKnight officially retired from SMU last May as Professor Emeritus and Jane Harlan Faculty Fellow Emeritus, he continued to participate in classroom instruction, paying his last visit to campus Nov. 17.

"We lost our patron saint, our living link to the very beginning of modern family law in Texas," said adjunct Dedman Law Prof. Brian L. Webb, an attorney with Webb Family Law Firm, P.C. "He was a great friend to all and proud to be a family lawyer."  

McKnight was a leading authority on family and matrimonial property law in Texas, as well as legal history. He also was a prolific scholar, authoring more than 100 articles and several books.  

Additionally, McKnight helped SMU Dedman School of Law establish an invaluable collection of more than 6,000 rare legal history books, one of the largest of its kind in the nation, with the oldest book in the collection printed in 1481. He studied bookbinding and book conservation at the Dallas Craft Guild for more than 20 years, learning how to properly restore the antiquarian volumes he cherished. In December 2011, he donated his own extraordinary book collection to Dedman Law’s Underwood Law Library.

"Joe McKnight was a truly remarkable teacher and scholar and a wonderfully kind and generous colleague," said Jennifer M. Collins, Judge James Noel Dean and Professor of Law at SMU Dedman School of Law. “Throughout his distinguished academic career, he was an inspiration to all who knew him. He will be greatly missed.” 

Students Recall Prof. McKnight

During SMU's Year of the Faculty in 2014, part of the University's Second Century Celebration, students recalled their professors. Read what some wrote about Prof. McKnight:

Dustin Whittenburg, Class of 2003

H. Lloyd Kelley III, Class of 1967

Ron Grant, Class of 1969, 1972

William McGowan, II, Class of 1970

Born Feb. 17, 1925, in San Angelo, Texas, McKnight grew up during some of the most severe years of the Great Depression, and despite the tough times his family faced, he spoke proudly of his West Texas roots.

He excelled academically and graduated at the top of his high school class at age 16. After several years of study at the University of Texas-Austin, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving during and after World War II. While finishing his studies at UT, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and in 1947 entered Magdalen College at Oxford University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Jurisprudence, a Bachelor of Civil Law, and a Master of Arts. He would later earn a LL.M. from Columbia University.  

After a short stint practicing law with Cravath Swaine & Moore in New York City, McKnight joined the faculty of SMU School of Law in 1955, where he taught for 59 years until his retirement in May 2014.  

McKnight was preceded in death by his parents and siblings, as well as his first wife, Julia Ann Dyer McKnight. He is survived by his second wife, Mildred Payne McKnight, his sons John B. McKnight and J. Adair McKnight, his stepchildren, Sawnie R. Aldredge III and Amy P. Aldredge, and numerous grandchildren.  

A mass in his honor will be held Dec. 4 at 10 a.m. at the Church of The Holy Cross Dallas, 4052 Herschel Ave. In lieu of flowers, donations are requested in honor of the Joseph P. McKnight Memorial Scholarship Fund at SMU Dedman School of Law or the Church of The Holy Cross Dallas.