LIMA — Gray Knisely went eye-to-eye with “the Viper,” the man who shot the sheriff, and interviewed “Titania,” who defended striptease as “a natural product of this sophisticated age.” He talked to bootleggers and blondes, and once interviewed a man who could blow smoke out of his ears.
During his long life, Knisely worked in public relations, in war production at Westinghouse during World War II and, beginning in 1959, for the city of Lima where he rose to the position of city tax supervisor before his retirement in 1976. Long before any of that, however, Knisely was a newspaperman. He was born in Lima Feb. 9, 1907, and died in Lima Aug. 28, 1996.
Lima in 1932 was a city with about 43,000 people, five railroads, two bus lines, an undermanned police force and a bad reputation. There was no radio station, and television was the stuff of Popular Science magazine. In 1932, the year he began his reporting career, Knisely was in his mid-20s, the son and grandson of physicians with turns at “four or five universities” and a “half a year” at the Louisville School of Medicine, Knisely recalled in an October 1984 article in The Lima News. The stint at medical school left him with the nickname “Doc” and an acquaintance with medicine that would later come in handy.
“It was not an era when newspapermen were highly prized, or highly paid,” according to the article. “When Knisely began his reporting career in 1932, publisher L.S. Galvin was running both the Lima News, an afternoon paper, and the Lima Morning Star, with the same staff of five reporters.” For $5 per week, Knisely “covered police news, ran the photoengraving department, dabbled in society notes, was in charge of the church page and covered the courthouse on the regular reporter’s day off. He also repaired linotype machines.” (These were the machines that arranged words on a page to prepare papers for printing.)
Prohibition was still the law when Knisely joined the News, and the lawless were still turning a profit catering to the nation’s taste for booze. With its undermanned police force, Lima was a favorite place for the bad guys to hide out, Knisely recalled. The city really was “Little Chicago,” he said.
“I’m almost ashamed of some of the notorious people I knew, but they were the celebrities of the day,” he said. “The society types from the west end would say, ‘You know so-and-so, the big bootlegger? Bring him out some day, I’d like to meet him.’”
In October 1933, Knisely would cross paths with one of the era’s most notorious persons. John Dillinger was being held in the Allen County Jail awaiting trial for a Bluffton bank robbery. On the evening of Oct. 12, members of his gang bluffed their way into the sheriff’s department and mortally wounded Sheriff Jess Sarber after he refused to hand over the keys.
“On the night Sarber was shot,” according to the 1984 article, “Knisely dodged past a nurse at Lima Memorial Hospital and, after commandeering a surgical gown and mask, slipped into the operating room to see what was going on. Once inside, he leaned over the table and, in his best medical school manner, observed, ‘Hmmmm. Doesn’t look good.’” Knisely was evicted from the operating room, but not before getting the story. “As he lay in mortal agony in the surgery at Memorial Hospital Thursday night,” said the story in the next day’s News. “Sheriff Jess L. Sarber found satisfaction in the fact that he had not handed over the keys to the gunmen who shot and wounded him and then rescued John Dillinger from a cell …”
Knisely would get an opportunity to interview Harry Pierpont, the gunman who killed Sarber, after he was captured and returned to Allen County. “They called him ‘the Viper,’ but not to his face,” Knisely said. “He was the absolute personification of evil. I sat and looked at him for 20 minutes, and he never blinked his eyes. …” Even with a guard right outside the cell, Knisely admitted Pierpont was frightening — but also fascinating.
Many of Knisely’s stories dealt with the merely fascinating, or simply strange. In July 1935, Knisley wrote of a man trying to get a mention on Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!” radio show for blowing smoke out of his ears. And, believe it or not, he did. The man inhaled deeply on a cigar and “an honest to burley blue column of smoke spurted from his right ear,” wrote Knisely, who himself earned a mention on “Believe It Or Not!” for his versatility at the newpaper. His attempt to parlay that notoriety into a pay raise was rebuffed by his publisher.
Della Carroll, a “blonde show girl” appearing in the “Broadway After Dark” review at the Ohio Theater, told Knisely in November 1936 that “(Clark) Gable was wonderful” but “he’s history now and I have a big new yen.” The yen remained unidentified. Another blonde, “Titania” the “take it off expert” of June Carr’s Follies was at the Ohio Theater in May 1937. She told Knisely that “if those in the $4.50 ticket buying bracket want to see a shapely woman divest herself of garments, why the authorities aren’t going to suppress that type of talent.” Presumably already divested of garments, “Zorima, the beautiful blonde exponent of life in the raw,” praised the nudist lifestyle during a visit to Martin’s Tavern. “They would keep in better physical trim knowing that otherwise they would be ridiculed by their more perfect companions,” she told Knisely in an August 1937 article.
Near the end of his tenure at The Lima News, Knisely wrote a column called “’Round Lima, Hour by Hour.” In an Aug. 28, 1940, column tidbit, Knisely wondered what had become of a 1925 Central High School graduate “who thought of the plot to sneak a cow into the upstairs study hall.” The plot was foiled when the cow collapsed at North and Metcalf streets, Knisely reported.
Knisely left the News at the beginning of World War II for a job at Westinghouse paying four times as much as the $21.50 per week he was then making at the News.