The Steel Woman of the Steel City: Catherine Baker Knoll

Four seemingly dissimilar objects actually tell the rich and complex story of an iconic Pennsylvania woman. A blue overcoat, a green inaugural gown, a black and gold Pittsburgh Steelers boa, and a leather motorcycle jacket unveil the strength and sincerity found in the multifaceted life of the late Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll.

Early Life

Catherine Baker Knoll during her swearing in ceremony for her second term as Lieutenant Governor in 2007.
Catherine Baker Knoll during her swearing in ceremony for her second term as Lieutenant Governor in 2007. Catherine Baker Knoll Papers and Photographs, MSS 766, Detre Library & Archives, at the History Center.

Born on Sept. 3, 1930, to Nicholas and Theresa May Baker, Catherine Baker experienced an ideal childhood. Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks, Catherine and her eight siblings learned to appreciate and understand the intricacies of politics, community investment, and the teachings of the Catholic faith. These formative experiences led to Catherine achieving the political feat of becoming the first female Lieutenant Governor for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Catherine’s education began at her father’s side. As the Burgess of McKees Rocks for 10 years, Nicholas dutifully served his town and ensured that his children familiarized themselves with current political and social events. As Catherine’s daughter, Mina Baker Knoll, recalled, “Every night at the dinner table, my grandfather would grill my mother and her brothers and sisters about current events and public policy, and what may have gone on that day…That’s really where she gained a lot of her roots and values. She learned things like you could do it all -whatever it takes.”[1]

While thriving under the tutelage of her father, Catherine managed to participate in multiple extracurricular activities. She loved to paint, ride motorcycles, ice skate, and even spent time modeling. Her son, Albert Baker Knoll, noted that she loved fashion and often frequented the department store Joseph Horne Company as well as smaller Pittsburgh boutiques.[2]

Catherine Baker Knoll at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, c. 2007.
Catherine Baker Knoll at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, c. 2007. Courtesy of Mina Baker Knoll.

As Catherine matured, she observed the wisdom of her father, which inspired her to pursue higher education. As a fixture in her community, she sought degrees that would train her to help others. In 1948, she enrolled in nursing school, followed by Duquesne University two years later. Shortly before she graduated, she married Charles A. Knoll Sr.[3] After graduation, Catherine taught history as a substitute teacher, started a family, and managed a business, Knoll’s Restaurant, with her husband. While maintaining the establishment, Catherine regularly interacted with clientele, further placing her in the public eye. “When you own a restaurant, you basically are like the mayor of the town, and ultimately, people sought her out because she had a special gift,” reminisced her son Albert.[4]

Catherine possessed attributes that appealed to the Democratic Party, and as a result, Allegheny County Democratic officials suggested she begin to pursue government service. During the 1960s and early ’70s, Catherine began a journey that ultimately propelled her to the state’s capitol.

Knoll on the night of her first Inauguration, 2003.
Knoll on the night of her first Inauguration, 2003. Courtesy of Mina Baker Knoll.
Knoll wore this dress during her first inauguration as Lieutenant Governor.
Knoll wore this dress during her first inauguration as Lieutenant Governor. Heinz History Center Collection, Gift of the children of the Baker Knoll family.
Jacket worn by Knoll on Inauguration Day, 2003.
Jacket worn by Knoll on Inauguration Day, 2003. Heinz History Center Collection, Gift of the children of the Baker Knoll family.
Embroidered names of Knoll’s family members on the inside of her jacket.
Embroidered names of Knoll’s family members on the inside of her jacket. Heinz History Center Collection, Gift of the children of the Baker Knoll family.

Political Life

In the 1960s, Catherine served on the Democratic State Committee. This involvement eventually led to her appointment as a hearing examiner for PennDOT in 1970. Under former Governor Milton Shapp, Catherine became the western regional director of PennDOT’s Pittsburgh branch, at that time the highest position attained by a woman in the state.[5] As her son Albert said, “[She was a] doer, an achiever, a leader, and an innovator in that regard, and she caught the attention of a lot of people.”[6]

In 1976, and again in 1984, Catherine ran for Pennsylvania’s State Treasurer position. Despite losing two elections, she never quit, calling upon early childhood lessons in perseverance. Elected in 1988, she held the office of State Treasure for eight years. After her term expired, she launched a campaign to become the state’s governor, but ultimately lost the race. However, different opportunities arose with positions such as the Chair of the Pennsylvania Delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1996, and a spot on the Board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in 1999. Three years later, she successfully won the Lieutenant Governor’s race with Governor Ed Rendell and made history as the first woman to receive this title.[7]

Catherine’s extensive political career lasted about 40 years. Even with her increased responsibilities, she never lost sight of her interests or compromised her values.

Knoll’s personalized Harley-Davidson motorcycle jacket.
Knoll’s personalized Harley-Davidson motorcycle jacket. Heinz History Center Collection, Gift of the children of the Baker Knoll family.
Image of Knoll on a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Image of Knoll on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Courtesy of Mina Baker Knoll.
Catherine Baker Knoll’s motorcycle helmet. Knoll was a supporter of A.B.A.T.E., the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education.
Catherine Baker Knoll’s motorcycle helmet. Knoll was a supporter of A.B.A.T.E., the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education. Heinz History Center Collection, Gift of the children of the Baker Knoll family.
St. Patrick’s Day parade, Pittsburgh, c. 2005.
St. Patrick’s Day parade, Pittsburgh, c. 2005. Courtesy of Mina Baker Knoll.

Staying True to Her Character

Catherine’s love of fashion was proudly displayed to the public on Jan. 21, 2003, when she debuted the blue overcoat from her inaugural ceremony and the green gown worn to evening events. Unbeknownst to the audience in attendance at her swearing in, Catherine had the names of her husband, children, and grandchildren embroidered on the inside of her overcoat. Even though her job continuously took her across the state, this sentimental action allowed her family to accompany her in spirit.[8]

Despite living in the center of the state while on government business, Catherine remained true to herself as an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Much like Steel City residents on a Sunday afternoon or evening, she regularly watched, and even hosted, Steelers events, proudly donning one of her black-and-gold boas. Her occupancy in Harrisburg never diminished her love for one of her favorite sports teams. Son Albert recalled, “…she was a rabid Steelers fan. She was very close to Franco Harris, and the Rooney family, and all of them, really. She lived and bled black and gold, and so she would have these Steeler parties as lieutenant governor, as state treasurer.”[9]

Prior to and during her lieutenant governorship, Catherine involved herself with various charitable organizations. She actively participated in events for local chapters of the YMCA, NAACP, and the Boys and Girls Club.[10]  But Catherine paid particular attention to a Pittsburgh-based charity that not only encouraged educating young adults, but also held direct ties to her deep Catholic faith. Founded in 1984, in the Brookline Boulevard United Presbyterian Church, Angels’ Place seeks to provide a better life for young adults and their children. Whether through educational programs, assistance in finding jobs, or providing day care services, Angels’ Place promotes the notion that all lives are valuable.[11] A close friend, Therese Rocco, invited Catherine to join the advisory board during the organization’s founding. For years, Catherine involved herself with Angels’ Place, helping the charity expand its services throughout the city.[12]

Knoll wearing a black and gold scarf in 2006.
Knoll wearing a black and gold scarf in 2006. Courtesy of Mina Baker Knoll.

Along with her devotion to Pittsburgh charities, Catherine used her platform as lieutenant governor to raise awareness for other causes. While living at the state’s capitol, Catherine, along with hundreds of Harley-Davidson riders, took an annual trip to Gettysburg to support the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education, or A.B.A.T.E. This cause, also supported by Democratic Representative Harry Readshaw, encouraged Catherine to wear her famous leather Harley-Davidson motorcycle jacket. During the ride, she raised money for the preservation and protection of Gettysburg battlefield monuments.[13] As a former teacher of history, she valued efforts that maintained historically significant sites.

For six years, Catherine dutifully served the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as lieutenant governor. However, during her second term in 2008, she was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. On Nov. 12, 2008, the energetic and proud Catherine Baker Knoll passed away at the age of 78. Throughout her life, she never stopped learning or challenging herself and others. She led a full life, one that any Pittsburgh resident could respect and admire.

Daughter Mina fondly remembers her mother as an individual who never quit: “She always told me ‘Mina, you can sleep when you’re gone. You’ll have plenty of time to sleep then. There’s too much to do. There’s too much to get done. You have to make a difference.’”[14]

To see these and other objects belonging to Catherine Baker Knoll, visit the History Center’s Special Collections Gallery. For more information on these objects, search through a selection of the History Center’s museum collection.

[1] Mina Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 13, 2018.
[2] Albert Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 6, 2018.
[3]Guide to the Catherine Baker Knoll Papers and Photographs 1940-2008,” accessed January 18, 2019.
[4] Albert Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 6, 2018.
[5] Albert Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 6, 2018.
[6] Albert Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 6, 2018.
[7]Guide to the Catherine Baker Knoll Papers and Photographs 1940-2008,” accessed January 18, 2019.
[8] Albert Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 6, 2018.
[9] Albert Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 6, 2018.
[10]Guide to the Catherine Baker Knoll Papers and Photographs 1940-2008,” accessed January 18, 2019.
[11]Our Story,” Angels’ Place, accessed January 18, 2019.
[12] Mina Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 13, 2018.
[13] Albert Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 6, 2018.
[14] Mina Baker Knoll, phone interview, November 13, 2018.

Grant Stoner worked as a graduate intern in the History Center’s collections department.

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