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updated: 5/10/2014 9:56 PM

Longtime Wheaton public works director dies

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  • Wheaton named Joseph Knippen, who headed public works for nearly 40 years, the grand marshal of the 1979 Fourth of July parade. He won the honor for his response to the blizzard that year.

      Wheaton named Joseph Knippen, who headed public works for nearly 40 years, the grand marshal of the 1979 Fourth of July parade. He won the honor for his response to the blizzard that year.
    Courtesy of the Wheaton Center for History


Before every winter in Wheaton, Joseph Knippen quipped, "We're due for a big one."

It hit in 1979.

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Knippen did what he always did: Instead of barking orders to his staff, the longtime public works director joined them on the streets. He got behind the wheel of a snowplow and helped dig the city out from one of the worst blizzards on record.

"He loved to be right in the middle of it," his son Joe Knippen said.

Knippen died Friday from heart complications. He was 74.

In a nearly 40-year career, Knippen was the reliable face of public works, rarely tied to his desk.

"He was known as the people's man of Wheaton," his wife, Connie, said. "Everybody always said, 'If you need something done, call Joe Knippen.'"

Born in Aurora, Knippen graduated from the former Wheaton Community High School in 1957. Just about a month ago, a film crew from the city's cable channel interviewed Knippen and his high school buddies about Wheaton's roots.

Knippen was a history buff who could rattle off the downtown businesses from decades ago. His uncle founded the now-shuttered Knippen's Shoes on Hale Street, where Wheaton youngsters often got their first pair.

"He was like an encyclopedia when it came to talking about Wheaton," his son Steven Knippen said.

The father of three took a behind-the-scenes role for the Center for History, Executive Director Alberta Adamson said. When the museum hosted its annual Fourth of July breakfast, Knippen delivered extension chords to power dozens of waffle irons.

Before feeding a crowd of hundreds, Adamson discovered some chords weren't working. In a pinch, she called Knippen 6:30 a.m. that holiday, and he supplied new ones before the breakfast hit the table.

"People felt that they could call on him, and he would help," Adamson said. "That's a rare asset."

In October 1971, Knippen became the head of public works, run out of a tiny office above the fire department on Front Street. He oversaw its rapid growth as major developments like Danada and Farnham popped up in town until he retired in 2009. He rarely took a vacation, sometimes overextending himself, Joe Knippen said.

"He went above and beyond to make sure a lot of people were taken care of," he said.

He took pride in the major projects and the simple ones, like sprucing up Adams Park.

"He loved his town," his wife said.

Visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at Williams-Kampp Funeral Home, 430 E. Roosevelt Road, Wheaton. Instead of flowers, donations can be made to the DuPage County Animal Care and Control or the Wheaton Center for History.

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