Alfred E. Knobler
Class of 1938, BS
Alfred Knobler didn’t know what he was getting into when he left his native New York City’s Bronx immigrant ghetto and arrived in Blacksburg, Virginia, in 1934. Although he found many differences between the teeming city streets and the Virginia Tech campus, he focused on the similarities.
“When I came to Tech,” he recalls, “it was mostly poor kids trying to make it, bright kids who were first-generation college.” He quickly felt at home. The son of working-class Jewish immigrants, he too was the first in his family to attend college. His fondness for Virginia Tech has lasted a lifetime.
Alfred Knobler, “Alf” as he was known, graduated in 1938 with a degree in ceramic engineering (now materials science engineering). Hitchhiking to Chattanooga in search of a job, he listened to a man who gave him a ride. “You talk good,” the fellow said. “You should be in sales.” The young Knobler landed a job selling for Trenton Potteries in New Jersey and within a year was making $8,400, a remarkable annual income in the depths of the Depression.
During World War II, Mr. Knobler served as a factory inspector for the War Department. After the war, he opened his own sales and import company in the gift industry which he quickly developed into a major success. In 1949, Mr. Knobler purchased a small hand-blown-glass factory in West Virginia, which he renamed The Pilgrim Glass Corporation. Pilgrim Glass grew steadily for the rest of the millennium and has been at the forefront of technological advances in glass production. Pilgrim stands today as the world’s only producer of the extraordinary multi-layered, multicolored work known as American Cameo Art Glass.
From an early age, this engineer was concerned with political issues. At 15 years old in 1930, he and his friends picketed Yankee Stadium demanding that black baseball players be admitted to the major leagues. At Pilgrim, among his first acts was to institute a medical plan for his employees. As the company grew in size and success, more benefits were added, including college scholarships for employees’ children. Mr. Knobler, who once considered being a union organizer, says, “I support unions. Workers need someone to look out for their needs.”
At 84, Mr. Knobler continues to act on his concerns. He endows the Alfred E. Knobler Scholarship Program at Virginia Tech, which funds an annual English Department scholarship for minority students, and he supports minority scholarships in the university’s material science engineering department. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Children’s Place, a childcare center in Huntington, West Virginia.
And he has returned to his roots. Mr. Knobler has adopted New York City Public School 42, the same elementary school from which he graduated in 1928. After visiting and finding it little changed from the 1920s, he has provided the school with badly-needed funds and materials and volunteers his time to discuss with the students the economic, social, and political history of their neighborhood. When he was growing up in that same neighborhood, he knew women up and down the block whom he called “Grandma.” Now the 600 African-American and Hispanic children at P.S. 42 affectionately shout “Hi, Grandpa Alfred!” when they see him in the halls on his weekly visits.
Mr. Knobler visits Virginia Tech regularly as a member of the College of Engineering’s Committee of 100, the University’s Ut Prosim Society, and the Materials Science Engineering Advisory Board. If the students don’t call him “Grandpa Alfred,” he is nevertheless proud to be an active member of the Virginia Tech family.
Alfred E. Knobler is CEO of The Pilgrim Glass Corporation and Knobler International, Ltd. He lives in New York City. He has two children: Peter, a writer, and Joanna, a doctor — and three grandchildren, all of New York City.
Class of: 1938
Year Inducted into Academy: 2000