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Raising the Bar: Why one attorney is building a case for more kindness in Greater Akron

On more than one occasion, Thomas G. Knoll’s name has risen to the top of the list for the region’s most prestigious awards. From the Akron Bar Association’s Sir Thomas More Award to the Greater Akron Chamber’s H. Peter Burg Award, Tom’s integrity, hard work and dedication to community service have made him a fitting choice.

In October 2018, the Stark & Knoll co-founding attorney added Akron Community Foundation’s Bert A. Polsky Humanitarian Award to his already impressive list of distinctions.

While Tom appears humbled by these accolades, it seems he’s most appreciative for the platform an award like this gives him to inspire even more good works in the community.

While accepting the Polsky Award in front of a crowd of nearly 500 community leaders at the Hilton Akron/Fairlawn, Tom took the opportunity to address an issue of increasing concern in our world: the loss of civility and kindness. To counter this trend, he implored the evening’s attendees to perform one additional random act of kindness each day.

While these individual acts may seem small, Tom said he believes the ripple effect will create lasting change in our community and beyond.

“If all of us in the room do that, it will result in 165,000 more random acts of kindness every year,” he said. “And who knows, maybe those who are the beneficiaries of your acts will pay it forward and we can achieve even more.”

For his part, Tom announced that he and his wife, Ginny, were establishing The Knoll Family Fund Promoting Civility and Acts of Kindness at Akron Community Foundation.

The fund will be used to “support institutions in our community that promote civility, and to acknowledge in some manner individuals who deserve recognition for their special acts of kindness,” Tom said during his remarks.

This, of course, is not the first time Tom has seized an opportunity to improve the community he’s called home since 1965. But to understand his love for the Rubber City, it’s important to first understand how he got here.

Tom was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1939 to Stanley Mathias Knoll and Virginia Knoll. The early part of his youth was spent in Michigan, where his mother was a teacher and his father owned a hardware store. But keeping a hardware store afloat in a small town was difficult, so Stanley moved Tom and his two sisters, Judy and Susan, to Sandusky, Ohio, where he took a position at General Motors.

Interested in the sciences, Tom graduated from Sandusky High School in 1957 with a scholarship to pursue engineering at Cornell University. After studying at the Ivy League school for a year and a half, Tom decided a liberal arts program would better suit him, so he enrolled in pre-law at Miami University in Ohio.

This turn of events would ultimately shape the trajectory of not only Tom’s career, but also his personal life. It was in the town of Oxford that he met his wife of 56 years, Virginia “Ginny” McPherson.

Having dated a few of Ginny’s sorority sisters previously, Tom was rebuffed the first time he asked Ginny out for coffee… and the next few times after that. Eventually, she gave him a chance, and they married shortly after Ginny graduated from college in 1962.

Tom went on to get his law degree at The Ohio State University and soon accepted a position at a firm in downtown Akron. He worked for a few different law firms over the years, including Roetzel & Andress, Akron’s oldest, before opening his own firm with friend and partner Mike Stark. Founded in 1985, Stark & Knoll started with just four attorneys and has grown to a team of 26 today.

As his professional life flourished, so did Tom’s involvement in his new community. Upon arriving in Akron, he quickly joined the Jaycees, a leadership program for young men. It was the entry to community service he had been looking for. There, Tom met Ben Ammons, a senior vice president at Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, and the two later became co-founders of the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national youth mentoring organization.

“I became aware of Big Brothers when I was in Columbus at law school. It just seemed like it was a place to make a difference in the lives of young boys who needed a male influence,” said Tom. “It soon became evident to me that Akron was in need of this program, so Ben and I just decided we’d start one here.”

Today, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Summit, Medina and Stark Counties serves over 350 children each year, matching them with caring adult mentors who invest in their future.
As the father of three sons, Tom is well-versed in being a role model. Even as a busy lawyer and dedicated community volunteer, he has always put his family first.

“Being the father of three boys who were involved in many activities, he was there for everything,” said Tom’s son Brad. “Watching us play soccer... countless hours watching my brother Andy play golf... he was always there. He even coached all three of us in baseball.”

Tom later used his passion for sports to start a new golf charity for area youth. In 1999, he co-founded The First Tee of Greater Akron, an educational youth development program that teaches kids life skills alongside the game of golf.

This was another program that Tom founded, in part, thanks to the Jaycees. The Jaycees were the founding sponsor of the Rubber City Open at Firestone Country Club, where a PGA tournament is hosted every year, so Tom had volunteered to pound stakes and string rope.

Over time, he became increasingly involved in the tournament, even presenting the $100,000 purse to Jack Nicklaus in 1976. Tom eventually became secretary of the PGA Tour Tournament Association, where he learned about the national First Tee organization and became interested in starting a local chapter.

“Everybody thinks of golf as a game where integrity is important,” Tom said. “So yes, this teaches kids about golf, but it really teaches them the importance of social values like integrity and honesty.”

In the years since, Tom’s humanitarian efforts have included co-chairing several charity campaigns, including the 2018 Summa Health Sapphire Ball and Habitat for Humanity’s “A Home of Our Own” capital campaign, which raised more than $2 million to purchase a new facility in Akron. He was also instrumental in the creation of Leadership Akron’s N.E.X.T. program, which engages retired executives in key community leadership roles.

“I’ve had some incredible, life-altering and heartwarming experiences in doing the work I’ve done,” Tom reflected. “That’s the thing about giving back. You’re going to make a difference in the community and in people’s lives, but you’re also going to come away a better person.”