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John Knowlton, St. Petersburg society fixture for decades

John Knowlton managed the Soreno Hotel and St. Petersburg Yacht Club before opening the Pennflora Hotel.

Knowlton family photo

John Knowlton managed the Soreno Hotel and St. Petersburg Yacht Club before opening the Pennflora Hotel.

ST. PETERSBURG — On a windy day in 1939, John Knowlton set sail in a 10-foot boat, headed for Anna Maria Island. His new bride sat in the bow. They had recently exchanged rings in Newburgh, N.Y., crowning a five-year courtship. They were financially secure. Life burst at the seams with promise.

But a storm was brewing. Midway across Tampa Bay, it broke open. The couple found safety and shelter in Bradenton, in the home of an elderly woman they had never seen before. She put them up for the night, then fed them breakfast.

Things always seemed to end well for Mr. Knowlton, in part due to his own efforts. "He enjoyed what he did, and he always did it as best he could," said his son, David Knowlton, 65.

Mr. Knowlton, a fixture of St. Petersburg society since the 1930s, died Wednesday. He was 96.

He grew up on the water, and sometimes rowed with buddies to a mosquito-ridden beach now known as Pass-a-Grille. "He had the reputation of whenever he got on somebody's boat, he would put himself to work, fixing anything that could be fixed," said local business leader and philanthropist William R. Hough, 82.

He made good decisions. As a young man working in a New Hampshire hotel, Mr. Knowlton saw a well-dressed woman with fine features.

"I'm going to marry that girl," he told a friend. The industrialist's daughter wore a chiffon gown to her wedding with a tulle veil. He wore a tux with a white vest and white tie.

As a child, Betty had spent far more time with books than pots and pans. Servants handled all the cooking. Her first attempt at a cake never rose. She left the hardened cake for her husband to find, with a doleful note. For a while, they used it as a doorstop.

He managed the Soreno Hotel, and later the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. He was a stickler about fairness. Vendors had to put their produce on a scale before he would buy.

When managing the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, he could have fired the bartender, who drank up to a case of beer on his shift. "I talked to Murphy about his drinking problem on a regular basis, and one day he quit drinking," Mr. Knowlton told family members, who produced a book about Mr. Knowlton. "He told me years later that one reason he quit was watching my family come to the club and seeing the wonderful relationship we had with each other."

In 1952 he bought the Pennflora Hotel — his own business, at last — and ran it for 40 years. He bought two waterfront lots for a house, later adding a third lot. In designing it, architect William Harvard asked the Knowltons to list qualities they wanted in a home. Their list ran 14 pages, covering everything from floors (no steps) to walls (lots of bookshelves) to layout (a living room you don't have to walk through).

A large volume of civic involvement followed. Mr. Knowlton led the Suncoasters, which produces the Festival of States Parade, and in 1955 was elected Commodore of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. For 35 years, he emceed the Debutante Ball.

In the summers, the couple putted around the Bahamas in a 46-foot power boat — staying where they liked, for as long as they liked, connecting with Caribbean friends, sipping wine and watching sunsets: each summer, all summer long, for 14 straight years.

By the early 1980s, pirates trolled the Caribbean waters. Friends advised the Knowltons to pack firearms on their next trip, or go in a convoy with other boats.

Instead, they bought a summer home in Highlands, N.C. They continued to travel the world until Betty died in 1999.

Mr. Knowlton turned to his routines, and found comfort in them. He kept up his lifelong grooming habits — pressed slacks, a good shirt, and shoes that stayed on his feet till bedtime.

Three times a day, the Dolphin Queen, a sightseeing boat from the Pier, passed by his dock. He hurried to meet it as fast as his nurses would allow. The captain greeted him on the loudspeaker by name. He waved across the waters he had sailed since boyhood.

The tourists always waved back.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or

. Biography

John Franklin Knowlton

Born: March 19, 1913.

Died: June 10, 2009.

Survivors: daughters, Katrina Kaufhold and her husband, Duane, Lucinda Howard and her husband, Graham; sons, Hayden Knowlton and his wife, Shannon, David Knowlton, and Thomas Knowlton and his wife, Ann; and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Service: visitation 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, 411 Cordova Blvd. NE. Service 11 a.m. Saturday, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 1200 Snell Isle Blvd. NE.

John Knowlton, St. Petersburg society fixture for decades 06/13/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 14, 2009 4:14pm]
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