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Ex-LI pair killed in Ga. fire recalled for spirited life

Joseph Kneer, 71, and his wife, Phyllis, 77,

Joseph Kneer, 71, and his wife, Phyllis, 77, died together in a morning fire at their retirement home in Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains on March 5, 2017. The couple spent much of their life on Long Island. Credit: Kneer family

Phyllis Kneer, who spent two decades teaching hundreds of Long Island fifth-graders, and her husband, Joe, who spent their life together fixing hundreds of things, died together in a tragic fire in March at their retirement home in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

It was the second stop in an extended semiretirement that led them from Smithtown, where they raised three daughters, to an avocado ranch in Escondido, California, and then back east to rural away-from-it-all Clayton, Georgia, where Phyllis could paint and Joe could start a new business tinkering with broken motors.

“They just had a sense of adventure,” said middle daughter Kathy Van Dyke, a website designer in Islip. “They loaded up the truck and they wanted to see new sights and explore.”

Phyllis Kneer, 77, was a Central Islip High School graduate whose parents worked at the state psychiatric hospital there. She attended Albany College and Stony Brook University for her teaching credentials, and then began teaching fifth grade at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in Smithtown, at first under her name from her first marriage, Phyllis Dallow.

Joe Kneer, 71, was born in Astoria, Queens, but moved to Hauppauge at a young age and graduated from high school there in 1964. His father had a 3-acre dirt farm and operated a mechanic’s business on the property, Phil’s Auto Repair. After a Navy stint on the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La, Joe joined the business, renamed “Phil and Joe’s.” He took over when his dad died.

The couple met — how else? — when she needed a repair. “I think he fixed her car,” said Van Dyke, who was a teenager when Phyllis and Joe married in 1973. “That’s how it started and the rest is history.”

Van Dyke says she remembers her mother for her cooking and painting — she has a still life of a coffeepot and some flowers, a beach scene, and a house in Ireland — and her stepfather for family days on the ocean in his little boat, as well as his mechanical skill that extended from cars to friends’ and customers’ weed trimmers, chain saws and pretty much anything with a motor.

“We used to call him MacGyver,” she recalled. “The guy could fix anything. He couldn’t help himself; if there was something broken, it had to be fixed.”

Joe’s brother Phil Kneer, 76, of Bay Shore, said Joe’s success was a function of his knack for motors and old-school business style — handshakes and not contracts, word-of-mouth instead of advertising. “He had a following,” Phil Kneer said. “It was based on quality, reliability and honesty.”

The Hauppauge where Joe grew up had been a small-town, rural community of barely 2,000 people. But by the 1980s it had turned into a suburban “swamp,” and in 1983 Joe and Phyllis hit the road to try to reconnect with that “simple life,” his brother said.

The couple set out in 1983 for California with all their belongings in a truck but no house, and ended up in Escondido with a small avocado farm and a view of Mount Palomar. Phyllis taught elementary education at San Diego State, Joe got a job with the local water authority, and they brought in extra money harvesting and selling their fruit.

In the early 1990s, they set out again, finally landing in northeast Georgia, where the Kneers could watch the seasons change on the mountainsides. “It was really peaceful,” said daughter Kathy. “They liked the lifestyle. Me, I like a deli around the corner. But they loved it there.”

Phyllis painted and joined the local artists guild. Joe didn’t want cars cluttering the property, but he started a small-motor repair business that grew by word of mouth, just like Hauppauge. “People got to know him and realized what he could do,” Phil said. “Honesty pays.”

Then, on the morning of March 5, it all came to an end. Neighbors heard explosions, and by the time emergency crews responded, the house was immersed in flames. The Kneers both died inside. The fire is still under investigation.

Phil Kneer, who knew his brother as a careful man, can’t make sense out of it.

“I’m having trouble getting over it,” he said. “I’m a pretty strong guy, but it’s really rocked my socks.”

In addition to Kathy Van Dyke and Joe’s brother Phil, the Kneers are survived by daughters Linda Uckert of Hackettstown, New Jersey, and Bonnie Griffin of Tempe, Arizona; and three grandchildren. Phyllis is survived by sisters Helen Reilly and Carol Michaud, both of Arizona.

The Kneers were cremated. The family plans a private memorial service in New York this summer.

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