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Happy 99th Birthday to the Mushroom Master, Leon Kneebone

by on May 28, 2019 5:00 AM

He nearly died three times within five days, way back in 1944. And he still often wonders why he survived those near-death experiences from World War II and a 1992 triple bypass surgery.

Yes, despite all odds, Dr. Leon Kneebone is still with us and still going strong. Thus, we can joyfully wish him a happy birthday on May 28, 2019 — just one day after the holiday on which we honor those who died in battle.

Few people have contributed more to Happy Valley than this gentle man, a world-renowned mushroom researcher at Penn State who also served 44 years as a United Way volunteer and filled innumerable leadership roles at St. Paul’s Methodist Church.

So, Dr. Kneebone, we know you’re familiar with the old song that says “the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone.” How do you feel about keeping the whole body together for 99 years? “I’m flabbergasted,” says the retired professor who now resides at The Village at Penn State. “I’m very humbled by it because I had a lot of earth-shaking experiences. I feel extremely fortunate.”

MIRACULOUS SURVIVAL

He is not exaggerating when he talks about “earth-shaking experiences.” Those traumatic events took place in 1944, when 1st Lt. Kneebone was serving with the Army’s 11th Airborne Division in seeking to liberate the Philippines from Japanese control. Just 24 years old, Leon had graduated from Penn State in 1942 where he studied biology and participated in advanced ROTC.

On December 4, Kneebone was commanding a patrol of 50-60 men through a jungle area on the island of Leyte. After nearing the top of a hill (later labelled “Purple Heart Hill”), Kneebone paused at the base of a large tree. What he couldn’t have known was that a well-camouflaged Japanese sniper was perched far above him in that very tree.

“He shot straight down at me,” Kneebone says. “Missed my head by two inches and the bullet went into my shoulder.” It took a relay of 16 soldiers toting the lieutenant on a litter to return him to the battalion’s headquarters, and there he underwent surgery in an open-air field hospital. “The anesthesia,” says the native of Bangor, Pa., “was a turkish towel over my face; they shook ether out of a bottle onto the towel.”

But the surgery wasn’t the roughest event at that hospital in a cornfield. Just one day after his operation, Japanese soldiers attacked the medical facility, and they came within 10-15 feet of Kneebone’s bed. American machine guns, however, cut down the Japanese and the young lieutenant avoided death for a second time. “I can remember seeing their faces…” Kneebone says with a quiet sense of dread.

Still in a weakened condition, Kneebone needed transport out of Leyte. And that called for a heroic pilot, Lt. Lanier, in a Piper Cub that could land on the cornfield. “One of the basic requirements,” recalls Leon, “was that I could not weigh more than 150 pounds. Otherwise the guy couldn’t take off.” Lanier and Kneebone did enjoy a successful takeoff—barely clearing some nearby trees—and the Penn State grad was ultimately taken to a hospital on Saipan. Tragically, Lanier was shot down the very next day on a similar medical rescue attempt, and Kneebone realized he could have easily died in that plane, his third experience of dodging death in Leyte.

* * *

I clearly recall hearing about Leon Kneebone while growing up here in the 1960s and ‘70s. Not only did his unusual last name stick in my adolescent mind, but I remember reading news items about how his research undergirded Pennsylvania’s leadership in production of those amazing fungi known as mushrooms.

About 10 days ago, I enjoyed a potluck lunch at State College Evangelical Free Church and began talking to my friend Ed Kaiser. As we discussed Ed’s work in mushrooms, I somehow dredged up the name of Leon Kneebone from a 50-year-old portion of my memory bank. Ed mentioned that the gentleman’s 99th birthday was approaching, and that triggered my curiosity.

A few days later, I enjoyed the privilege of meeting Leon, together with two of his three grown children, Steve and Eileen. I observed his age-related loss of hearing and reduction in mobility, but I couldn’t help being impressed by the personality of this almost-centenarian. I noted his kindness, tenderness (especially when discussing his deceased wife, Elizabeth) and humor. Indeed, as both Eileen and Steve wryly noted, “He’s a real fun-gi.”

I was riveted as I listened to Kneebone’s war stories, but frankly, his post-war narratives are also very interesting.  


Leon and Libby Kneebone with their children, from left, Steve, Eileen and Patti

SURVIVING THE FIFTH GRADE BOYS

After recovering from his WWII injury, Leon married Elizabeth Morgan (“Libby”) on May 5, 1945, and he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1946, having earned the rank of captain. He brought his bride to Happy Valley, and he began pursuing a Ph.D. in botany. Kneebone soon gravitated toward mushroom research, largely because of the influence of Dr. James Sinden.  

Kneebone also made his mark at the Methodist church on College Avenue. “Dean Dickerson was associate dean of Agriculture,” recalls the mushroom man, “and he approached me the second week I was a member at St. Paul’s.  He said, ‘We need a teacher for the fifth grade boys.’”

Fifth grade boys can be a tough bunch in any church’s Sunday school, but Leon survived that challenge and moved up the ladder to superintendent of the Sunday school, district lay leader and, eventually, voting member of the World Methodist Council.   

“The Methodist Church has always been all I’ve known,” he says. And then, moments later, he begins to quote the lyrics from “This is My Father’s World.” Yes, it seems this world-class scientist is also an enthusiastic singer of traditional old-fashioned Methodist hymns.

BOOSTING PENNSYLVANIA MUSHROOMS

Kneebone joined the Penn State faculty in 1950 upon completion of his doctorate. Then, in 1953, Dr. Sinden accepted a job in Switzerland, leaving the Penn State mushroom emphasis in Leon’s hands. He did not drop the baton.

The new head man at Penn State maintained the success of its Mushroom Research Center, now housed near Beaver Stadium, and the Mushroom Spawn Lab, the facility that is now directed by faculty member John Pecchia and managed by Ed Kaiser. (The lab provides starting cultures, known as “spawn,” for mushroom growers in Pennsylvania but also as far away as India, Spain and Venezuela.)

Kneebone also inaugurated the Mushroom Short Course, and last October’s gathering marked the 60th meeting of the two-day course that gives growers input on disease prevention and production practices. Perhaps the most consistent attender is “Sonny” Pizzini of Pizzini and Sons, Inc., a mushroom and produce company in Landenberg PA.

“The Mushroom Short Course has had an enormous impact on the industry,” said Pizzini, a participant at 58 gatherings. “Thanks to the research and education provided by Penn State, we’ve learned new techniques and technology that have boosted our operations and allowed us to improve mushroom quality and expand varieties.”

Although I’m bigger on pepperoni than mushrooms as a pizza topping, I can’t deny the fact that Pennsylvania is a big cheese whenever mushrooms are in demand. Partly due to the legacy of Kneebone’s research at PSU, Pennsylvania’s growers — clustered near Kennett Square in southeastern PA — lead the nation in mushroom production. According to the Mushroom Farmers of Pennsylvania, the state’s 68 farms produce 63 percent of all U.S. white mushrooms, valued at $554.4 million in the most recent year of measure.


A historical marker on the University Park campus notes Penn State's leadership in mushroom research. Photo by Bill Horlacher

MUSHROOM COUNSELOR

Although he traveled constantly during 28 years on the Penn State faculty and 10 years as a consultant, Kneebone maintained a big heart for Happy Valley, before and after his retirement. He served on the board of State College’s Red Cross chapter, was Cubmaster for the Cub Scouts, drove for Meals on Wheels over the span of 22 years, and spearheaded the local fund drive for American Cancer Society. As for the United Way, his leadership beginning in the State College area and then in all of Centre County was considered so significant that the “Leon R. Kneebone Award” was established in 1994 to recognize each year’s top volunteer.

And then there was one unique way for Leon to serve his local community. It may sound peculiar at first, but he willingly helped everyone who wanted to make sure their wild mushrooms weren’t poisonous. “Dozens and dozens of times,” says Kneebone, “people would knock on my door (at Buckhout Lab or at home) with a bag full of mushrooms and they’d want to know about this one and this one and this one. So that went on for years.”  

Leon smiles broadly when talking about such mushroom counseling, but then his countenance changes dramatically as he tells a sad story. “I can remember when we lived at 125 S. Patterson St., the phone was on (Libby’s) side of the bed, and the phone rang at 2 o’clock in the morning… She passed the phone over to me, and I was half asleep. And it was the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland calling. Five members of a family — a husband, wife and three children — had gone wild mushroom hunting in the Washington, D.C. area. And I was told on the phone that two of the children had already passed away (after eating poisonous mushrooms). They (doctors) wanted to know anything they could do.

“Really, once the toxins from the mushrooms enter the bloodstream, you’re about done for. It’s a comparison of the quantity of the toxin that you absorb compared to your body weight… A heavy person eating a relatively small amount of poisonous mushrooms would have cramps or headaches but it would not be fatal… I could not tell them anything to do but what they had already done. They had gotten a stomach pump to (each) person and tried to empty the digestive tract. And I don’t know, frankly, whether the other family members survived or not.”

MAN OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS

By the time his career ended, Leon Kneebone had amassed an amazing list of accomplishments. He was credited with 114 research papers, and he had served as advisor for more than 200 graduate students. He helped maintain Penn State’s standing as America’s top university for mushroom research. He served as chairman of the International Commission on Mushroom Science. He traveled the world, including 33 trips to England. Although my friend Ed Kaiser did not have the opportunity to work with Kneebone, he knows his reputation well: “He was one of the pioneers of the industry, a real treasure.”

If you ask Kneebone about his success, however, he won’t point to a list of accomplishments. Rather, he’ll speak about people he helped to guide. “I think I am most proud of one of my students,” he says. “He started to study with me in 1957. His name is Lee Schisler, and he was an exceptionally good research man. He had a lucrative patent issued to the university through his work. And I also had John Kriner as a graduate student. He later became principal at State High. So I had a whole bunch of wonderful associates. I was very, very fortunate.”

Of course, he will also speak of his family — Libby, their three children (Patti, Steve, Eileen) and their six grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. He and Libby enjoyed many years of gardening together and they participated on the same bowling team for a whopping 40 years.  Determined not to ignore his kids, Kneebone found tasks for them in his lab and took them on many overseas trips. “We had a wonderful life,” says Eileen.


The Kneebone family in a Christmas photo, from left, Eileen, Steve, Libby, Patti and Leon.

ONE REMAINING QUESTION

Leon Kneebone, age 99, is a contented man. He has an eight-inch scar on his upper right arm, but his heart is whole. To say the very least, he’s lived a long and happy life.

One question, however, still eludes an answer for this thoughtful man. Why was he spared from death when a bullet missed his head by just two inches? Kneebone would be willing to say that God spared him from death — unless that conclusion would suggest God somehow favored him over his Army buddies.

“I have pondered this for years and years and years,” he says. “I’ll lie in bed trying to sleep at night and my mind will wander through all the earth-shaking experiences that I had… Did God direct the bullet?”


Leon and Libby Kneebone


Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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