Click image for transcript of Knight's final TV interview
The war hero test pilot the world knew as "The Fastest Man Alive" has died.
State Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight, who flew faster than any human in the X-15 rocket plane, and the state politician who made the argument over gay marriage into a national legal debate, died at City of Hope Hospital around 7:30 p.m. Friday night. He was 74.
In April, Knight was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. The ailment spread rapidly.
Knight, R-Palmdale, formed a study in contradictions and lore verging on legend.
He was man of small stature, a few inches over five feet, who loomed as one of the largest figures in the nation's aerospace history. To his many supporters in the Antelope Valley and beyond, he was no less than the authentic American hero.
As a test pilot flying higher, and then faster, than anyone else, he earned astronaut wings. In Vietnam, he flew 253 combat missions, earning a chest full of medals that he rarely spoke of.
"In Vietnam, we were not afraid of dying," he once told a POW-MIA gathering. "We were afraid of having to go to the Hanoi Hilton," he said, referring to the notorious POW camp.
"The sweetest words I would hear was 'feet wet.' That meant we had cleared the coast of North Vietnam."
Flags flew Saturday at half-staff at the state Capitol at direction of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Today we are saddened by the death of an extraordinary man," Schwarzenegger said in a statement from Sacramento. "Senator Knight's memory will live on through his lifelong contributions to our nation's aerospace communities and our state's public affairs."
The governor continued, "We have lost a true Renaissance man."
Knight had dropped from sight, with April 1 his last day in Sacramento. Off the floor of the Legislature, Knight was rarely seen without his wife, Gail.
"The worst thing about this is he wanted to keep working, going, contributing," Gail Knight told The Associated Press. "He wanted to live. He wanted to try. God had a different plan."
Knight's 17th District includes northeastern Los Angeles County, Inyo County and portions of San Bernardino and Kern counties.
As much as ideological antagonists opposed him, a broad field of admirers supported him.
"I just found being able to serve with an American icon was very special to me," said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford, for whom Knight served as a civic mentor.
"I will always know Pete as an aviation hero. I can't let go of that image."
Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte said, "Even people in Sacramento on the other side of the philosophical spectrum would be hard pressed not to like Pete Knight."
The consummate local politician, progressing from mayor of Palmdale in the 1980s to the Assembly and then Senate in the 1990s, Knight battled in the culture war over gay marriage. His Proposition 22, the statewide initiative, passed by 61.4% of the electorate. It defined any marriage recognized in California as between a man and a woman.
That initiative galvanized political activists' fight to legitimize gay marriage. In a supreme irony, Knight's son, David, also a veteran Air Force combat pilot, obtained a marriage certificate with his gay partner and joined in a legally challenged matrimony at San Francisco City Hall.
Father and son's opposing views prompted a years-long estrangement.
Following the ceremony, David Knight told AP, "He believes in something I don't. I'm sorry about that and I feel sad that we can't discuss it. I don't agree with him, but I think he's a good man."
Ending their estrangement, David Knight traveled to his father's bedside in his final days.
Knight often voted against education funding, insisting the standards and accountability he and other conservatives sought were not met. Liberal Democrats and teacher unions castigated his votes as anti-education. He said he backed responsible spending.
At home, the majority backed him, and last year Pete Knight High School opened in Palmdale.
Principal Mike Vierra said on Knight's numerous visits to Pete Knight High School students mobbed the senator like a celebrity. He added Knight was working on plans to get a jet fighter plane donated to the site. "I know he wanted to get a chance to speak at the first graduation."
Vierra's brother, David, superintendent of the Antelope Valley Union High School District, said, "We're shocked and saddened."
Knight was a tireless advocate for the Second Amendment gun owner rights. He also worked to bring a veteran's home to Lancaster, backed veteran benefits and shaped legislation and policy to retain military installations such as Edwards Air Force Base where he once served as vice commander, retiring from the Air Force in 1982 as a full colonel.
Knight insisted his views espoused the values of what he feared was a vanishing America.
"Pete was a true American," Ledford said. "What he was trying to promote was apple pie."
That directness won him respect at the local and county levels as well as in Sacramento.
On Saturday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said: "He had guts. He was one who stood strong and spoke from his heart."
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley echoed that sentiment, saying, "He was a man of great honesty and intellectual integrity and I also liked his sense of humor."
Knight's legislative colleague, Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, said both were short in stature. That, he said, gave them will power. For a warrior, Knight had a certain elfin quality. His nickname "Pete" flowed from the way he wiggled his nose, like Peter Cottontail. It was a way to flirt with schoolgirls when he was a boy.
"Part of our strength was that we were little guys," Ashburn said. "We could get away with things other people couldn't."
Democratic activist Sandy Corrales said the senator's height was something over which even they found common ground.
"We're both 5-foot 2-inches so we always used to joke that we could literally see eye to eye, just not politically," Corrales said, adding that Knight was always nurturing and encouraging.
Describing Knight as personable and "ruggedly charming," Corrales said she thinks Knight shared the appeal of George W. Bush. "He is a good president because he was the kind of person you'd like to stop by and have a beer with. I think the same is true of Pete Knight."
Best of all, she said, she appreciated Knight's bluntness. "I liked the fact that he gave it to me straight."
Knight had a wide circle of friends, and was known for humor that could range from gentle to dry, to, on occasion, wildly off the mark.
In the Legislature, he read aloud a poem in 1993 that mocked illegal immigrants who "gamed" the system. Denounced by Hispanic colleagues and condemned on both sides of the aisle, he apologized. It was a gaffe he didn't repeat. Knight became a regular at the Antelope Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce installation, arriving early and staying until the end.
At chamber events, his wry delivery of honors earned honest laughs. Once at a Palmdale installation, he presented the outgoing chamber president his honors saying, "Well, here we are again. Same old ceremony. Same old senator. Same old certificate." The audience broke up.
David Orosco , Knight's spokesman for six years, said there were times he would cringe at questions the senator was asked, waiting for the answer. Somehow, it all turned out.
"He spoke what he believed and he spoke the truth," Orosco said. "The media, his constituents and his colleagues respected him immensely for that."
For a military man who could be brusque, Knight was also amiable and accessible.
"If you knew Pete for even a short period of time, you were close to Pete. It didn't take long to warm up to him," Orosco said.
At the Capitol, where his office faced east overlooking Capitol Park, Orosco said the man was a formidable presence, and at the same time, a great boss.
"You'll find staffers constantly saying their members are great to work for. But rarely will you find staffers saying that to the degree of sincerity this office does," he said.
Palmdale's growth is one of Knight's largest legacies.
"He did two things," Ledford said. "Pete facilitated the first blueprint for Palmdale as a city and he brought the mall." The Antelope Valley Mall, opening in the early 1990s, became the cornerstone for commercial growth and residential development.
Only close friends and family, and a limited number of staffers, had contact with Knight during the weeks he was in and out of the City of Hope. Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, said she was saddened by his sudden death and disappearance from public life.
"I was so disappointed that I couldn't talk to him personally in the last month and tell him how much he meant to me, to the state and to the country," Runner said.
Knight was born in Noblesville, Ind., on Nov. 18, 1929. Joining the Air Force in 1950, Knight achieved aviation legend status on Oct. 3, 1967 when he flew North American's X-15 rocket plane to Mach 6.7, or 4,520 mph - more than twice the velocity of a rifle bullet.
Knight was rarely introspective, and he seldom reminded anyone of his distinguished military aviation record.
"I figure people will find out who you are and what you did without you telling them," Knight told a Valley Press reporter in 1998.
In recent years, Knight delighted in his role as a grandfather. The grandchildren accompanied Knight as he rode in local parades. Knight had three sons, three step-sons, a step-daughter and 15 grandchildren.
Knight reportedly requested a timely burial in the Palmdale area. Services, with the appropriate military honors, were in preparation with no formal plans announced Saturday.