Stella Knicely, who died last week, was fondly remembered by many at EMU. She served for nearly 23 years as administrative secretary in the Physical Plant (now known as Facilities Management). Former supervisor Eldon Kurtz recalls her as dependable, professional, a stickler for detail and protocols, and always looking out for everyone to be treated with justice and fairness. (Courtesy photos)

Stella Knicely remembered for deft management of EMU’s physical plant hub

Stella G. Knicely, 72, of Mount Crawford, passed away Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at her home. A graveside service was Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, at Pike Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg with Linden Rhodes officiating. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Gideons International, PO Box 734, Harrisonburg, VA 22803.

Memories shared in the comments below will be passed on to her family.


Many of us who knew Stella Knicely, longtime administrative secretary of Eastern Mennonite University’s physical plant, will remember her just as she appears in the feature image above: a slight woman dwarfed by a very large desk and counter, but clearly in charge of everything within her view, more than a little forbidding when you stopped in to pick up a key or or sign out a university vehicle.

Surely, many of us also will smile and nod at learning that Braydon Hoover, who knew Stella both as a student and then in his various roles in the Advancement division, considered it a personal triumph if a joking remark earned the reward of her smile. “I always tried,” Hoover said, “and didn’t always succeed, but when I did, her smile would light up the room.” 

Thanks to former colleagues Eldon Kurtz and Ed Lehman for these photos, which tell their own story of Stella at EMU.  

There’s Stella with President Loren Swartzendruber, who made the trip down to the Physical Plant to present her with a plaque in recognition of her years of service because she demurred wider recognition. Her smile is delightful and the fact that a photographer was present to take this photo tells us that her colleagues were just as delighted for her.

And the pancake-flipping? When she retired in 2015, after more than 22 years of service, Stella shared her party with colleague Lewis Driver and insisted on flipping pancakes on the grill to stay out of the spotlight. 

Finally, there’s the photo of Stella with a tea set gifted to her by her physical plant colleagues. Eldon recalls that family was all-important to Stella, and that sharing tea parties with family members was an important and treasured tradition. The EMU tea set was, then, also a gift from family.

Eldon remembers Stella as dependable, professional, a stickler for detail and protocols, and with a concern for justice and fairness. “Her colleagues who interacted with her over time came to appreciate her honesty, sense of humor, sensitivity and kindness,” he said. 

Her sterling qualities, especially her capacity to show and share grace, helped her weather many changes in the Physical Plant, and at the university, from 1992 to 2015, Eldon noted, including “a supervisor who was very different from her.”

“Her insights, challenges, and support” were of great value during the 17 years they worked together, “much to my benefit as well as that of the university.”  

Among his cherished memories are moments of deep fellowship, raising candid conversations about faith, hopes and fears with Stella and colleague Loretta Helmuth over the office counter. Stella took those times to heart and offered not only a listener’s heart and counsel if needed but sometimes more: “When Stella said she would pray about something, you knew it was happening.” 

Ed, who was assistant director under Kurtz and now serves as director of the renamed Facilities Management, shares similar memories: “She was very professional with a bit of humor once you got to know her. Always a stickler for following process and policy, she was very organized and knowledgeable about our campus, its faculty and staff, and had a genuine servant’s heart. Her gracious spirit endeared her to those of us who worked closely with her, and she had a way of keeping us at our best, most of the time.”

Stella is survived by five sisters, Hazel Shirk of Rockingham, Rhoda Showalter and husband, Larry, of Seneca Rocks, W.Va., Fay Brubaker and husband, Harold, of Harrisonburg, Mabel Knicely of Mount Crawford and Elsie Showalter and husband, Robert, of Broadway; and two brothers, Boyd Knicely and wife, Mabel, of Weyers Cave, and Wade Knicely and wife, Rhoda, of Mount Crawford. She is also survived by numerous nieces and nephews. Preceding her in death, in addition to her parents, are her brother, Fred Knicely and wife, Dawn; brother-in-law, Mervin Shirk; and great-niece, Christine Hobbs.

Discussion on “Stella Knicely remembered for deft management of EMU’s physical plant hub

  1. What a lovely tribute to a wonderful colleague! A serious thinker and “keeper of the keys” but with a ready smile and twinkle in her eye. I first met Stella in 1998 when I began my career at EMU as an office coordinator. I quickly learned the importance of Stella’s role and made it my goal to win her favor. She was a delight to work with, much beloved and deeply missed.

  2. I really liked Stella, and worked hard to stay in her good graces! She had a professional work ethic that couldn’t be beat, and a kind heart.

  3. My favorite conversation with Stella, once when I was picking up keys, had to do with appropriate dress! We laughed at how much we agreed.

  4. A truly fine professional, always helpful when I needed access to various sites on campus when doing workshops for EMU students.

  5. I adored Stella. And I choose to believe she mostly tolerated my teasing and joking around with her. My favorite memory is when I brought one of our new CAC students down to her office to get keys to the Films closet. Stella took one look at the student, who had hair dyed blue, paused and said “Oh I like your hair”. I mean…how do you not love that? And those speed walks with Loretta up and back from Chapel. Or joking with her about heading to the beach with her sisters in Florida. Stella and I often swapped chocolates at Christmas…she liked the white chocolate, and I liked the dark. I will miss her dearly. She made my time at EMU so much more meaningful and joyful.

  6. I had the honor of becoming “The New Stella” in 2015! I used that phrase for quite a while until people got used to me sitting in Stella’s chair! She trained me with precision and detail and indicated it was difficult passing the torch after she had accumulated so much knowledge over many years. As I was training, there were many times I would look at her and let her know I felt overwhelmed. She patiently kept working with me. She was a hard act to follow but I am thrilled to be a part of the Facilities Management/Auxiliary Services Departments!

  7. The smile that was captured in the first photo of this article was my goal each time I saw her in the Physical Plant, and one summer in the mid 90s, that was a LOT. I loved learning about her life, and I honestly think she loved hearing about mine. Her rule-following sternness was a good model for me later in life when struggling how to define boundaries among strong personalities. My heart is sad to hear of her passing, but glad that I could experience and create many smiles with her.

  8. Beneath Stella’s stern adherence to policy and procedures lived a warm and generous heart. She and Loretta often had time for a quick conversation and some laughter in the midst of a workday, and I appreciated that so much. I truly enjoyed working with her over my 13 years at EMU and am sorry to hear of her passing.

  9. Working in the administrative office at EMU gave me many occasions to be in touch with Stella. I got to know her as a colleague, but also a friend. We liked to throw gentle barbs at each other, knowing there would be a response from the other. She knew the ‘in and outs’ of how things worked the best–and yes, what the guidelines were. But that helped me know the expectations.
    She displayed a caring attitude and sincere faith in what she believed.
    After her retirement, and then the onset of her illness, I found her accepting of her future knowing how her life on earth would end. Even in pain, she did not complain.
    Rest in peace Stella! I’m grateful our paths crossed–til we meet again.

  10. My former colleague Nancy Heisey says that “My favorite conversation with Stella, once when I was picking up keys, had to do with appropriate dress!” I don’t recall the precise topic but I also recall picking up my keys from Stella when first employed at EMU and that I tried some teasing. I quickly realized that only very high-wit teasing would meet her bar. I like to think maybe she gave me at least a C in teasing, since I do fondly remember some smiles and I dare think even a chuckle.

  11. Serving as director the Intensive English Program for 10 years (1999-2009), I led many fieldtrips and, consequently, picked up vehicle keys many times from Stella. I found her to be like “an acquired taste” — the more I got to know her, the better I liked her and really missed her when she retired in 2015.

  12. I was so fond of Stella. We both had a penchant for rule following (and keeping those around us in line!), which can make one come across as tough or inflexible, but she obviously cared about each person around her, and her work at EMU. My favorite conversation with her was one when, after I strained a ligament in my foot, we bemoaned the lack of options for supportive, yet stylish, footwear. It is sad to think of a world without Stella in it – I hope she knew how beloved she was in our community!

  13. Stella was a gem for sure – a treasure sometimes hidden within a serious approach to work and stern adherence to protocols and expectations. She insisted that we could only have a fire permit if we followed the City of Harrisonburg guidelines that open fires could only be used for cooking food. From then on, campus ministries always had a bag of marshmallows and a few sticks at our campfire gatherings. That suited her just fine. I do miss Stella and send loving care to her extended family in their journey of facing loss and grief.

  14. As a student in the mid-90s working in drama, it was always “Go see Stella for the keys.” You never got them without the proper signature, but then you got them with a smile.

  15. I am guessing that every new employee at some point during their first day of orientation was told, “Now you will need to go down to the Phys Plant office to get your keys from Stella.” Upon hearing that I wondered, “Who’s Stella?” There was also the inference, ” . . . and make sure you have your paperwork in order.” When I met Stella it didn’t take me long to understand why I was given those warnings, but behind her “attention to the details”, I quickly saw that Stella had a huge dose of empathy and would do her best to “find a way” to get you the resources you needed. Although her first look when you came into the office may have seemed intimidating to the uninitiated, as whatever transaction you were there to complete proceeded, it did not take long for you to realize that the established policy/procedure would be honored but she was there to help you find a way to get what you needed. I have never met someone who so consistently and effectively balanced those two burdens of job responsibility . . . to honor policy/procedure but to help her customer achieve what they wanted from the resources she was charged with managing. Once you got to know her it was a joy to engage in conversation with her and bring out her reserved, but warm smile.

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