Joseph Webb McKnight, law professor and legal scholar, was born in San Angelo, Texas, on February 17, 1925. He was the son of John Banning McKnight (a cotton merchant) and Helen Katherine (Webb) McKnight. Excelling as a student, McKnight graduated at the top of his high school class and, at the age of sixteen, entered the University of Texas. He joined the ROTC unit at UT, was commissioned an ensign in the U. S. Navy shortly before graduation, and began active duty in 1944. McKnight returned to UT in 1946, and upon completing his bachelor’s degree the next year, he became a Rhodes Scholar in Magdalen College at Oxford University. There, he earned the degrees of bachelor of arts in jurisprudence, bachelor of civil law, and master of arts before graduating in 1950. Eventually, in 1959 he earned an LLM at Columbia University.
McKnight passed the bar exam in Texas in 1951 and practiced law with the firm of Cravath Swaine & Moore in New York City before joining the faculty of the Southern Methodist University School of Law in 1955. He taught at SMU for fifty-nine years until his retirement in May 2014. McKnight soon established himself as one of the foremost legal scholars in the Southwest. A 2002 listing in the SMU Law Review of all of McKnight’s publications to that point in his career required seven single-spaced pages. He published primarily on the influence of Spanish law in Texas (in books such as The Spanish Elements in Modern Texas Law ) and on matrimonial property law in the Lone Star State (see COMMUNITY PROPERTY LAW and SEPARATE PROPERTY LAW). His book, Texas Matrimonial Property Law (1983), reflected the fact that he played a major role with Louise Raggio, another Dallas lawyer, in drafting the Texas Matrimonial Property Act (1967), a landmark law in advancing equal property rights for married women in Texas. He helped draft the Texas Family Code project (1970), and he also helped write the Texas Antiquities Code to protect archeological sites and historic buildings on public land.
McKnight was a collector of books concerning legal history, especially the evolution of Spanish and English law. He studied book binding and preservation to care for the collection, which grew to 6,000 books and was eventually donated to the SMU law library. He held active memberships in several legal societies. A lover of Texas history, McKnight helped establish the Texas Old Missions and Forts Restoration Association and sat on the boards of the San Jacinto Museum History Association, Texas Supreme Court Historical Society, and the Institute of Texan Cultures. He also served as an editorial advisor in law and legal history for the Texas State Historical Association’s revision project that culminated in the six-volume The New Handbook of Texas (1996). He was named a Fellow of the Texas State Historical Association in 2004.
McKnight married Julia Ann Dyer on July 20, 1957, and following her death in 1972, he married Mildred Payne of Dallas on August 9, 1975. His family included two sons, a stepson and a stepdaughter, and numerous grandchildren. He died of a heart attack at the age of ninety at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas on November 30, 2015, and his death was marked by a Mass at the Church of The Holy Cross Dallas. He was buried in Deer Creek Cemetery at his family ranch near San Saba, Texas.