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Obituary of Robert Kneib: Reader, writer, journeyman drinker

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 27, 2009 - Robert H. Kneib considered himself a professional drinker. But it was a profession he left more than two decades ago.

In the mid-1980s - after progressively heavier bouts of drinking for about 20 years, Mr. Kneib retreated with his German shepherd, Max, to the woods of Beaufort, Mo. His goal was to read, smoke and drink full-time. And for a while, he succeeded.

He wrote about the experience in a short story published in 2002 by the University of Missouri-St. Louis' biannual literary magazine, Natural Bridge. "My Last Great Reading Binge" begins:

"Shortly after high school I began my drinking career. I rose quickly from apprentice drinker to journeyman drinker. Still, I read two or three books a week. Alcohol did not hinder my reading."

But he acknowledged, it did affect everything else in his life: education, work, relationships (he married late and briefly) and his health.

During his six-month retreat, he stayed on 33 acres of land an hour west of St. Louis that he'd bought to do organic farming. He slept beneath a tarp in the bed of his pickup truck and scavenged for food and reading material. He was always reading: The Clan of the Cave Bear, A Tale of Two Cities, Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Wallace, The Saint series, The Worst Journey in the World.

And he was always drinking - until 1988. The epiphany came after he ran out of money and, consequently, vodka. Alcohol withdrawal, DTs (delirium tremens), set in. Mr. Kneib described what happened next:

"I awakened in the hospital bed with my wrists tied. I was blind. My body flesh was cut and stripped away from branches having ripped it as though from a flogging. The bottoms of my feet were thickly scabbed from running barefoot for about a half mile over sharp rocks from forest demons before I crashed through the forest gloaming and over a 25-foot cliff, accidentally. Luckily, someone had found me a day and a half later. I knew on awakening I'd never drink liquor again."

To the surprise of his former girlfriend, Jean Oberkrom, he never did.

"I didn't believe him," Oberkrom said. "But he said he prayed and prayed about it and he had a spiritual awakening. He believed it with all his heart."

Oberkrom had good reason to be skeptical. Mr. Kneib had drifted in and out of her life - and her home - for more than 20 years. The romance had long since ended, replaced by a strong friendship. And when the drinking got to be too much, she told him not to come back, ever.

"That's when he went out and drank himself off the cliff," Oberkrom said, recalling how they'd both laughed at the absurdity of his predicament, grateful that he survived.

Two decades after he gave up drinking and smoking, Mr. Kneib died at his home in St. Louis on Feb. 6, 2009, of esophageal cancer. He was 60 years old.

"He was always stubborn and cantankerous," his sister, Mary Chappell said. "But he was kind and generous, too. When we were kids, he saved his money and gave us gifts that thrilled us: a small bottle of perfume that my mother had coveted and cosmetic cases for my sister and me."

As an adult, Mr. Kneib displayed his charitable side by becoming a naturalist who fervently adhered to the motto "Go green, save the earth."

He believed people were destroying the earth by polluting the air and water, not recycling waste and ignoring global warming. He did his part for "green" issues by joining the Sierra Club in the 90s, writing articles for the organization; raising organic food; cleaning rivers and streams and badgering members of Congress to strengthen environmental laws.

Mr. Kneib was a native St. Louisan, the youngest of three and the only boy. He graduated from Cleveland High School in 1966, then attended St. Louis Community College at Forest Park for two years, majoring in journalism because, since boyhood, he'd always wanted to be a writer.

He had always been industrious, starting work as a paperboy for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when he was just 10, soon opting for a better job as a bowling pin setter. Partly because of his drinking, he was an inveterate job hopper.

He had been a mailroom clerk at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, a 905 liquor store associate, a manager at 2 Cents Plain, a dishwasher, a retail sales associate, did forestry work for Davey Tree Co., was a deli worker, a driver for a radiator shop, a bottler at a liquor company, a Kentucky tobacco field hand, did various construction jobs, wrote a gossip column, was a UPS seasonal worker, a sales associate at a book fair, a supervisor at a laundry, a traveling "carnie," a pool hall manager, picked up trash in a Georgia Park and worked as a binder at a book company.

In an effort toward stability, he returned to school in 1984, attending East Central College in Union, Mo. He earned a certificate in building maintenance, but it would be four more years before his encounter with a cliff and permanent sobriety.

Mr. Kneib was eventually able to put his maintenance certificate to good use. He got a job with the St. Louis Board of Education as a "hot shot driver," delivering whatever needed to be delivered to wherever it needed to go. He was later promoted to plaster-tender. His most recent position was with the Parks Division of the St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. He remained there until failing health forced his retirement in 2007.

No matter what kind of work he was doing, Mr. Kneib never lost his desire to write. He returned to college in 1997, attending evening classes, and earned his bachelor's degree in English from Washington University in 2001.

"We were so proud and happy," Chappell said. A year later, he completed his essay about his journey through the woods to sobriety.

"He had a hard life and a lot of it was of his own doing, but he had a kind heart" Oberkrom said.

Mr. Kneib never blamed anyone except himself for his fate.

"The poetic justice of my having to fall 25 feet from a cliff to find my grounding is not lost on me," he wrote. "I tried not to feel sorry for anyone, especially myself. My view was that each human being put himself or herself in situations by self-action. 'Get tough or die,' I said many times to myself or to complainers."

He was preceded in death by his parents, Harry and Catharine Kneib, and his sister, Virginia Schmidt.

In addition to his friend of 35 years, Jean Oberkrom, he is survived by his sister, Mary Chappell of Atlanta, Ga.; his nephews, Stephen Chappell of San Francisco, Daniel Schmidt of McGill, Nevada and David Schmidt of Reno, Nevada. He is also survived by Oberkrom's three children, Sherry Bradley, Mark Oberkrom and Jeffrey Oberkrom, all of St. Louis, two great nephews and one grand niece.

The quiet, adventurous child who loved ice skating, fishing, spelunking and especially reading, became the man who believed in karma and reincarnation. Mr. Kneib viewed his passing as simply another life transition and chose not to have a funeral service.

To read Mr. Kneib's essay, "My Last Great Reading Binge," go to https://www.umsl.edu/~natural/number06/Kneib.html

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.