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Ex-U.S. Rep. Knollenberg dead at 84

Jonathan Oosting, and Melissa Nann Burke

Former Michigan U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, a Republican who served on the powerful Appropriations Committee, died Tuesday due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, his son confirmed.

Knollenberg, 84, had been living in a memory care facility as he battled the neurodegenerative disease, according to state Sen. Marty Knollenberg, who added that his father had been steadily losing weight and lost 20 pounds in the last 10 days.

“You knew the day was finally going to come … but at that point, the writing was on the wall,” said Sen. Knollenberg, who was at the Michigan Capitol around 12:30 p.m. when he learned his father had died.

He drove home to be with family and talked with The Detroit News from Troy.

The former congressman from Bloomfield Township had represented Michigan’s 9th and 11th districts in Oakland County from 1993 through 2008, when he lost his seat to now-U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat.

“There was never a truer gentleman than Joe Knollenberg,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who has served in Congress since 1987.

“Joe was so well-respected on both sides of the aisle as Michigan’s go-to guy on the key Appropriations Committee. Joe was always smiling, with a kind heart and a voice of civility and respect.”

Peters called Knollenberg was “a true statesman and a well-respected gentleman – exactly the kind of person you want to see in public service.

“My thoughts are with his family and friends, and I hope they can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that his legacy of dedication and public service to the people of Michigan will live on.”

Knollenberg scored a surprise victory in a three-way 11th District GOP primary in 1992. He had initially signed up to work as campaign manager for former U.S. Rep. William Broomfield, a Republican who was forced into a new district and decided against seeking re-election.

“People automatically assume he’s best known for being a congressman, but he didn’t start his congressional career until he was 59 years old,” said Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy.

“He’d never run for public office prior to that. He was first a family man, husband and father.”

The senator said he’ll remember his dad as “someone who is classy, likeable and statesmanlike.”

“People to this day recognize his efforts and what he’s done for the community.”

State Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, said he met with former Congressman Knollenberg in Washington, D.C., when he considered a congressional run in 2000.

“Just a class act. A hell of a nice guy,” Brandenburg said. “A great legislator. A great man.”

Knollenberg is survived by his wife, Sandie, 79, along with sons Marty and Steve. He also has a large extended family after growing up with 12 siblings on a farm in Illinois.

Knollenberg was born in Mattoon, Illinois, attended public schools and earned a degree from Eastern Illinois University in 1955. He served in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s.

Before his election to Congress, Knollenberg worked as an insurance agent and executive in Troy.

He won an upset victory in the GOP primary in 1992, garnering 42 percent of the vote over a pair of well-financed candidates, state Sen. David Honigman and former Oakland County Circuit Judge Alice Gilbert.

The former Oakland Party Republican chairman was the only anti-abortion candidate in the GOP race and had the backing of Broomfield, who had represented the district since 1956.

Knollenberg, a fiscal conservative, went on to win the general election and served for eight terms. He co-chaired the Congressional Armenian Caucus and introduced legislation for official recognition of the Armenian genocide that started in 1915 – something the United States has still not done.

On the House Appropriations panel, he chaired subcommittees on military construction, the District of Columbia, and later the panel on Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development until Democrats retook the chamber.

Knollenberg, whose district included auto parts makers, fought to repeal President George W. Bush’s tariffs on imported steel in 2003 and was later influential in securing the bailout loans for the auto industry in 2008.

“He was accessible and responsive in Washington, D.C. every time we had an issue,” said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. “He was a real friend of Oakland County who represented his constituents well. He will be sorely missed.”

Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, called Knollenberg an “invaluable public servant in Congress.”

“As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he worked hard to deliver for the people of Michigan. He will be missed, and my prayers are with the entire Knollenberg family today,” Moolenaar said in a statement.

The family will receive friends 1 to 8 p.m. Friday at A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home in Troy. A funeral Mass will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Holy Name Catholic Church in Birmingham.