Harry R. Knorr Jr., 85, of Wynnewood, a Philadelphia Fire Department official who later became Lower Merion Township’s influential fire chief, died Sunday, Sept. 8, of cardiopulmonary arrest at Lankenau Medical Center.
For 30 years, Chief Knorr had battled heart disease that felled two siblings at an early age. He died while under treatment for complications related to heart problems.
Chief Knorr was born in Philadelphia to Harry Raymond Knorr and Agnes Lenora Brannen. He graduated in 1952 from Dobbins High School, where he excelled in football and track, and later earned an associate degree from Community College of Philadelphia.
From the get-go, it was clear that Chief Knorr was a leader. He joined the city Fire Department in 1958 as a firefighter and rose to assistant chief in 1979, the highest civil service position attainable.
He retired from the City of Philadelphia but continued working as a fire investigator. In 1983, he became the chief fire officer and fire marshal in Lower Merion, and it was there that he hit a new stride, said friend Joe Daly, then a township police lieutenant.
“He took our fire service from the Dark Ages into the modern times,” Daly said. “You had to respect that. He could see the fire service evolve and what it should look like,” Daly said. “He was way ahead of his time, and Lower Merion benefited immensely.”
Charles J. McGarvey Sr., who replaced him as fire chief in 2005, said Chief Knorr “will be sorely missed by the many of us who had the pleasure to know him and work for him. He was a true friend and mentor. He will not be forgotten.”
Jim Ettelson, a township commissioner from 1992 to 2004, described Chief Knorr as the quintessential public servant. “Whatever they needed, Harry was there,” Ettelson said.
Chief Knorr informed himself about public safety issues and moved on them when he thought it necessary. One of his campaigns, begun in 1990, was to get sprinklers installed in old high-rise buildings in Lower Merion.
The campaign gained momentum in February 1991 when three firefighters died on the 28th floor while battling a blaze at One Meridian Plaza in Center City. The fire didn’t stop until it was doused by automatic sprinklers on the 30th floor.
“It was no longer a question in the minds of doubting Thomases: ‘Do they work? Will they work? ’” Chief Knorr told The Inquirer in a June 1991 article. Given the available technology, he said, there was no reason to send firefighters into buildings without sprinklers.
Despite an uphill battle, the Lower Merion Township Board of Commissioners passed a sprinkler law, 13-0, in June 1991 over the objection of opponents who said it would cost too much.
The law mandated that structures taller than three stories built before 1986 must have sprinklers within five years. Newer construction already was required by law to have sprinklers.
Kenneth Davis, a former township commission president, joined the board at the end of 1991. “Lower Merion hasn’t had a major fire in a long time," Davis said. “That is largely due to Harry Knorr."
The chief was proud of having rescued the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle at St. Joachim’s Church in Philadelphia as the fire burned around him, at one point. At another point, the chief dissuaded a young man from jumping off a bridge. “Him being at that scene and making a difference was laudable and defined who he was,” his family said.
Chief Knorr married Joan Hammond Knorr in 1954. They had six children. She died in 2012.
In August 2016, he married best friend Eileen R. Trainer, the former township secretary. They spent summers at the Jersey Shore and winters on Hutchinson Island, Fla. “It was a match made in heaven,” Daly said.
The chief enjoyed golf, watching John Wayne movies, and following the Eagles and Phillies. He joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 39 in Philadelphia. He coached community football. “I always admired his community involvement,” said longtime friend Steve Keenan.
Besides his wife, he is survived by children Joan Karpovich, Harry 3d, Andrew, Pauline Korn, Christine, Adam, Jim Trainer, and Tara Trainer; 15 grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and two brothers and a sister.
A viewing will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, in the Stretch Funeral Home, 236 E. Eagle Rd., Havertown, and again on Friday, Sept. 13, at 9 a.m. at Presentation BVM Roman Catholic Church, 240 Haverford Rd., Wynnewood. A Mass of Christian Burial will follow at 10 a.m. Interment is private.