Greatest Person: Jonathan Knowles 'I Like to Help'

Los Gatos resident serves on several important nonprofit organizations in town, which are key to building community.

Editor's Note: You might have seen The Greatest Person of the Day on the Huffington Post. Today, we launch our own version of this wonderful feature spotlighting ordinary and extraordinary town residents whose acts of courage, determination, volunteerism and compassion have made a difference in Los Gatos and who inspire and energize others to strengthen their communities and improve lives. 

Think ordinary people doing extraordinary things for friends, families, groups and others. We'll look for them everywhere, in faith communities, in nonprofit groups, schools, senior centers, firehouses and elsewhere. We'll also consider public figures. There are no age restrictions. We want diversity of age, race, gender, etc., and most important, we ask you, our valued reader, to help us find these outstanding citizens by nominating them.

Los Gatos community advocate Jonathan Knowles grew up in Southern California and was fortunate enough to have some amazing life experiences while growing up, thanks to a loving grandmother who took it upon herself to school her oldest grandson after he became fatherless at a young age.

A divorcee ahead of her time, she served the less fortunate in homeless shelters, with Knowles at her side. He traveled the world with her, spending summers in Europe, living in a Zuni Native American reservation in New Mexico while in the fourth grade, living in Kenya for a year and also in Hawaii, Hong Kong and the Philippines in his early 20s, where he built houses for Southeast Asian refugees and those who lived in the trash heaps.

"I'm a big believer of how important it is for people to go out in their youth and experience what the rest of the world is really like," Knowles said during an interview at major town hub,  "We have it so good."

A Depression-era survivor, his grandmother had an incredible sense of service, instilling in Knowles and his two younger sisters such a deep love of world knowledge and charity that now most of what he wants to do is help others.

"I'm addicted to it, I guess. I like to help," says Knowles, dressed in a plaid kilt, black polo shirt and creme-colored kilt socks, an expression of his Scottish heritage. But he also has Irish, Welsh, English and German blood running through his veins. "I'm an American mutt," he quips.

The name Knowles comes from an ancestor who immigrated to America in 1699, an indentured servant who worked on a ship for seven years to pay his way to come to America. He got off the ship when he was 22 years old, camped out in New England and built a farm, Knowles says.

Born in Tennessee, he moved to Southern California as a baby. He graduated from Chatsworth High School, studied biology at the University of California-Irvine and has completed programs at Harvard and Cornell universities.

In high school, with one foot in thespian troop and another in the math and science club, Knowles recalls helping during the bicentennial in 1976 to put on a theatrical performance of patriots from 1776 for the less fortunate. Some of his classmates were Val Kilmer and Kevin Spacey, he says.

Coming North

He moved to Northern California 20 years ago when Apple recruited him. Prior to that, he was on the faculty at the Claremont Colleges in Southern California. 

During his career in Silicon Valley, he's also worked for Adobe and now at Autodesk Inc.

He has also traveled significantly in his career, doing close to half a million miles a year on airplanes around the world, promoting Autodesk's technology.

At Apple, he was the product manager for its QuickTime technology; at Adobe, he was the technology strategist for PDF; and at Autodesk, he's senior adviser to its CEO and chief technology officer.

Serving in Los Gatos

Knowles moved from Cupertino to Los Gatos in 2003, attracted by its strong sense of community. He credits his wife, Kelly, with finding the town after studying the area for many years. 

As soon as he moved into town, the natural leader says he had no other choice but to lead. Knowles is a take-charge type of person who will, in any situation, with any group of people, naturally want to accomplish goals for the greater good, stirring objectives he accomplishes with stunning success.

He serves as a volunteer on many nonprofit groups in town, such as the Los Gatos Arts and Culture Commission and as chairman of the board of directors of the nonprofit Los Gatos Music and Arts, producers of the "Jazz on the Plazz" and "Music in the Park" popular concert series. The organization is dedicated to inspiring, nurturing, developing and facilitating artistic programs for the benefit of the community.

Knowles is also president and chairman of the board of directors of the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Foundation, helping the with tools and resources to deliver quality programs and services that promote public safety, community education and awareness, and emergency response. Eleven residents of Los Gatos and Monte Sereno, and the chief of police serve on the foundation board.

As co-chairman of the advisory steering committee for the capital campaign of the Friends of the Los Gatos Public Library, Knowles works with others to raise money to help continue the organization's standard of excellence and improve and expand its literary and educational programs.

As project lead for Los Gatos Unleashed, Knowles works with other community volunteers to promote the town's dog-friendly nature, encouraging responsible dog ownership and educating people about the benefits of off-leash activities for dogs. Knowles is the proud father of a Welsh terrier named Winnie.

Los Gatos Unleashed sponsors "Los Perros for a Day" each spring as "the town of the cats, goes to the dogs" and works with Society Dog to produce "Howling Halloween," the annual dog costume party that attracts 1,000 dogs and their owners to the town.

Knowles also maintains a planter in downtown Los Gatos with his wife, is the curator of TEDxLosGatos, volunteers as an interpretive naturalist docent for the California State Parks at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains and volunteers as a registered disaster service worker and assistant emergency coordinator radio communications operator for Los Gatos-Monte Sereno ARES/RACES and mutual aid communicator for Santa Clara County ARES/RACES in the Office of Emergency Services.

On a lighter note, Knowles is the Big Kahuna and Grand Pooh-Bah of the Los Gatos Social Club, proprietor of the Golden Tiki at Casa Knowles, an officer in the Los Gatos Vesparados, founder of Pena de Los Gatos, a HAM radio operator, PADI Rescue Diver and avid photographer.

Why does he serve in so many organizations in town? "I don't need to do it for ego at all," Knowles answers. "I need to do it for the end-results.

"Since I was kid I would take charge of the group," he remembers. "When we were little and playing Star Trek, I would always be Captain Kirk. You end up in circles that have needs."

He spends about half his time helping others and describes it as his primary hobby. And because he doesn't have children, he says it's easier to be completely devoted to charitable causes.

With his infectious positive attitude and his philosophy of candor and respect, others have no choice but to want to follow and be around the enthusiastic Knowles and accept his ideas and concepts.

"The Town of Los Gatos is the gem of Silicon Valley," Knowles says. "We are fortunate to have the people who have come before us to help make this community what it is ... We're standing on the shoulders of giants."  

What are Knowles' hopes for Los Gatos?

"I would like to see downtown become more pedestrian friendly. Bikes and skateboards and filthy trash cans and news stands on our very narrow sidewalks just don't work. We're moving, albeit slowly, in the right direction with a recent cleaning of the sidewalks and a few new news stands, but we need to do more and accelerate the pace."

He also hopes the town will give more attention to the infrastructure conditions all around. Streets, light posts and road signs are crumbling and falling apart in too many places, and medians and intersections are filled with dirt and weeds in many spots, Knowles says. "We should once again become the gem of the valley of heart's delight."

Bonnie Westman September 07, 2011 at 01:18 AM
Great article Sheila, what a wonderful person! Bonnie Westman
Peggy Conaway September 07, 2011 at 01:24 AM
Jonathan is indeed a courageous, determined and invaluable volunteer. Before I retired as Los Gatos Library Director in 2010, I had two remarkable experiences while working with Jonathan. At one point, there was an ill-advised attempt on the part of a few people to delay or stop the construction of our new library. Paid signature gatherers were boldly giving the voters of Los Gatos incorrect and misleading information. Jonathan worked with the Friends of the Library to overcome this challenge, successfully helping them to navigate through a very unpleasant situation. He helped the Friends when they really needed his fearless approach. On another occasion, an unfortunate scheduling conflict arose at the Civic Center. The library had set up an art exhibit featuring the work of an elderly woman artist who had produced some wonderful scenes of Los Gatos. Music in the Park had plans to use the same area for their program that afternoon. The compromise that Jonathan helped make possible was not a small thing. Beyond wishing to honor our commitment to a fine local artist, I was concerned that her decision to leave her estate to the library might be compromised if the exhibit had to be unceremoniously called off at the last minute. When the artist passed away in 2010, the library received her estate, valued at $750,000. That money will make a world of difference for our library, for years to come. Thank you Jonathan! Peggy Conaway
Sheila Sanchez September 07, 2011 at 01:52 AM
Thank you, Bonnie. Jonathan Knowles is indeed one of Los Gatos' 'Greatest Persons!'
Sheila Sanchez September 07, 2011 at 01:54 AM
Thank you, Peggy, for two great examples of Jonathan Knowles' amazing leadership abilities.
Mary Lindsay September 08, 2011 at 09:04 PM
Los Gatos is lucky that Jonathan lives here and makes such a huge contribution to our town.


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