Molly Knox began her life of service in 1971 as a young Meadville woman, converting an abandoned house on the edge of town into a social services center for disadvantaged families.
Twenty years later, she would repeat that feat on a larger scale -- this time moving one of the first rape crisis centers in the country from a rented, steep walk-up rabbit warren of an office in Oakland to a large, historic former church on the South Side.
Today, Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, which Anne Pride founded in 1972 as the first victim services agency in Allegheny County, is still there, serving 2,800 clients annually -- a testament to the vision, passion and managerial skills of Ms. Knox, who came to the organization in 1984 as education director and later served as executive director, before leaving in 2000.
After suffering years of debilitating pain from a variety of medical conditions, Ms. Knox died April 27 at her South Side home. She was 66.
It is believed she took her own life, said her brother and only survivor, John Knox of San Francisco.
Born in Youngstown, Ohio, Ms. Knox received bachelor's and master's degrees from Allegheny College in Meadville. As part of the master's program, she taught at a Cleveland inner-city high school, which in turn ignited a lifelong interest in civil rights and women's empowerment.
She would be a good fit for PAAR, which had already made its name under Pride's leadership after establishing sexual assault hotline services and medical and legal services in 1974 for victims.
Later, in 1980, it waged a legal battle for the privacy rights of rape victims, which resulted in Pennsylvania passing the first law in the country guaranteeing confidentiality in discussions between a victim and a rape crisis counselor.
By the time Ms. Knox arrived in 1984, the organization was ready to grow to a new level, said Jennifer Wood, an associate professor at Penn State University's campus in New Kensington.
"She led PAAR into a new and important level of professional training, and because of it, countless therapists, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers and law enforcement professionals received extensive, tested and effective training grounded in years of experience working with and advocating on behalf of victims of sexual violence," said Ms. Wood, who worked as her executive assistant for four years before Ms. Knox encouraged her to go to graduate school.
Ms. Knox's sense of humor -- and a distinctive laugh -- endeared her to colleagues, added another former staffer, Reed Williams.
"Molly was my boss, my mentor and my friend. As brilliant as she was, she always acted from her big, big generous heart. I will miss her wisdom, her patience, her willingness to listen and her unmistakable laugh."
While versed in sexual violence research, Ms. Knox possessed strong managerial and fundraising skills. She had an ability to reach beyond the organization's original grass-roots feminist mission, coaxing other constituencies into her orbit. One of her most important supporters was Frank Cahouet, onetime head of Mellon Bank.
"Molly could talk to anyone, making real connections, from the lifeguard at the pool to the state attorney general," Ms. Wood said. Her efforts to work with public officials and business leaders paid off.
Today, the former three-story Baptist church has counseling offices, a large training area and play/therapy rooms for children. There are prevention and education departments, and staffers and volunteers undergo a rigorous training program developed by Ms. Knox and her colleague Robin Connors, who wanted to move beyond one-day training programs and professionalize the field of rape crisis services based on best practices.
"Molly Knox truly left an impact on this community," said Alison Hall, executive director of PAAR since 2008, noting that the South Side headquarters is not her only legacy, "but her vision of how victims should be treated, and the importance of everyone understanding sexual violence."
Shirl Regan, who heads the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, said she was inspired to move to Pittsburgh to work in the domestic violence field after hearing Ms. Knox speak. "She represented victims so well, and her words always touched my heart," Ms. Regan said. "She was so articulate about a difficult subject, and when I heard her I wanted to work with her."
A memorial service in Pittsburgh is planned for June 8, with the location yet to be determined, said her brother. For more information, friends may contact him at email@example.com or 415-235-0260.
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @MackenziePG.