Blessed are those who bless others

On the wall of Andy Knuth’s office is the finger-painting of a cross surrounded by the signatures of seven young students with the words, “Blessed are those who bless others.” Nearby is an eighth grade graduation photo of the same students, who were given a shot at a Catholic education… because of Andy.

Pictured: ANDY KNUTH, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Weston and retired founder and chairman of Westport Asset Management, believes in the mission of Catholic education.

Years later, those same students are in Catholic high school and preparing to go to college because of Andy, a man who believes in the mission of Catholic education and will do what has to be done to give a chance to students who might not otherwise get a chance.

Some are setting their hopes on University of North Carolina, Boston University and Boston College, others on University of Connecticut, Villanova and Quinnipiac.

“I like to think they progressed in their education because they knew I was supporting them and they didn’t have to worry,” says Knuth, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Weston and retired founder and chairman of Westport Asset Management. “I had a firsthand opportunity to see how these kids developed. I buy into Catholic education. If we weren’t supplying scholarships to kids, they couldn’t go to Catholic schools, and that’s very sad. They need it the most…and they appreciate it the most.”

And just as he is committed to providing them an education, they are equally committed to their education because of him.

Maureen Nelson recalls getting up at 5 am to take a bus to downtown Stamford and then transferring to another one that would bring her to St. Cecilia’s School. Coming home, she took a bus to her cousin’s house and then would go to her grandmother’s and wait until her mother’s coworker could pick her up and drive her home.

Today, Maureen, who is a senior at St. Joseph High School, hopes to pursue a career in medicine and has applied to Boston College and of Boston University.

“It would have been easier to go to public school, but my dad wanted my sister and me to go to Catholic school because they went to Catholic school in Haiti, and it meant so much to them,” she says. Knuth’s initiative began in 2007 at the invitation of a friend who is on the bishop’s scholarship committee and believes the best way to save Catholic education is one student at a time.

Knuth agreed to help reopen Sacred Heart School in Stamford, but when that plan faltered, his seven students, who were then first-graders, were transferred to St. Cecilia’s. From that time, he continued to support them every year right into Trinity Catholic High School. After it closed, they went to high school at St. Joseph’s in Trumbull and Notre Dame in Fairfield.

His commitment to Catholic education extends beyond what he has done for these seven students. Knuth also has provided other students with 4-year college scholarships, and others with scholarships to St. Joseph and Notre Dame students, in addition to giving assistance to 20 students at Assumption Catholic School in Fairfield.

“Andy’s continued commitment is a powerful endorsement of the vital work of our Catholic schools and a life-changing gift to their families,” said Bishop Frank J. Caggiano. “These students strive for excellence; however, they face very real financial hardships. His generous support allows them to stay on the path of transformational Catholic learning, where they can live out Christ’s call to discipleship.”

When he looks back on his involvement with the students, from childhood to their teenage years, Knuth says, “This has been an extraordinary experience for me and for them. If I had to pick out seven great kids, I couldn’t pick out any seven kids who would be better. I’ve worked with them for 13 years, and now to see them as seniors in high school is just remarkable. It has been a great experience for me and a great experience for them. If I was looking for a project to do, I couldn’t have found anything better.”

But his involvement goes beyond the financial because he has a special empathy for the challenges they face, and he sees similarities in his own life.

“My parents were great. We had no money, we had nothing. My mother told me, ‘If you want to get ahead in life you have to go to college,’” he recalls. “And I have been very fortunate in my life.”

Knuth grew up in West Caldwell, New Jersey, and later went to Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania, and like his students, he was the first person in his extended family to go to college.

His father Andrew dropped out of school after the eighth grade and grew up on a farm with six other kids.

“My father learned how to do mechanical things on the farm, and he became a really great mechanic,” Knuth says.

During the Great Depression, when his father needed a job, his brother came up with a solution: “My uncle Jake was panning for gold in the Snake River in Idaho, and he contacted my father and said, ‘You gotta come out here; there’s gold all over the place.’ So my father drove a rickety old Ford out to Idaho, and the two of them were so successful they bought a front-end loader to help pan for more gold.”

That venture ended, however, after a historic devastating flood hit the river.

Andy says his parents were “the best parents I could ever have.”

“We always had the support of our family, and they did everything they could to save money so I could go to college,” he recalls. “My mother was a telephone operator in those days, and it cost $1,200 to go to college.”

After Dickinson, he went to New York University for his MBA and got started in finance.

“I have been very fortunate in my life, very fortunate,” he says. “I don’t know why God picked me out to be so fortunate, but he did. And the key to my success was an education. The only way I can see to help kids who are in a difficult situation is through education. I see no other way.”

In addition to the scholarships that Andy provides, he and his daughter Jennifer Loya started a program at the Boys and Girls Club of Bridgeport to encourage young people to go to college, and through that initiative, they have sponsored the college educations of seven additional students.

Over the years, the seven Stamford students have met regularly with him, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, they held Zoom sessions.

“There was great emotion from the kids when I told them I would pay for college or trade school,” he recalls. “For all of them, it would be the first time anyone in their families went to college. It was emotional for them, and it was emotional for me. At one meeting, a mother came up to me crying and put her arms around me and said, ‘If it wasn’t for you, my daughter wouldn’t be able to go to such a good school.’ That almost got me crying.”

Going to Catholic school was so important for Emilio Montero that to get to St. Cecilia’s he would take several buses across town. Now, a senior at St. Joseph High School, he has applied to colleges in the Boston area, in addition to Columbia and Villanova.

“I want to major in English because I love to write. I love reading and I like magazines like the New Yorker, which give me ideas to write about,” he says.

“I can’t say how grateful I am to Mr. Knuth. He is a really good person who cares about us,” Emilio said. “When my parents first told me about him and the financial aid, I didn’t know what it meant, but later I understood, and I have been praying for him every day since then.”

Ivan Martinez, a senior at St. Joseph’s, wants to be a math teacher and has applied to Boston College and Villanova.

“Because of Mr. Knuth, I have been able to go to Catholic schools. Without his help, I would probably not have the opportunity to go to college,” Ivan said. “Because of him I have been able to stay close to my Catholic faith, and that is very important to me and my family.”

Ivan says that he enjoys the meetings with Andy because it gives him a chance to learn more about his sponsor, and he feels a family bond with him and the other students.

Every time, the students would meet with Andy, Maureen Nelson, now a senior at St. Joseph’s, would sing a song to express how she felt.

“To me, there are no words to describe how amazing it feels that he took the time to care about us and our education,” she says. “The best way I could express it was to sing a religious song that my parents and I picked…and even that wasn’t enough to express the deep and profound gratitude I have for everything he has done. We are always filled with happiness to see him, and it warms our hearts that he is happy to see us. And we always pray for him.”

The first time she sang for Andy was when she was a third-grader. She sang a hymn that she performs in Creole at the Haitian-American Community Center in Stamford. She translated the song into English for Andy and said the words express what she feels:

“I’m only human, I am just a human, make me believe in what I can be and all that I am. Show me the stairway that I have to climb. Lord, for my sake teach me to take one day at a time.”

by Joe Pisani