Sherry Knowlton was loading up a van. She grabbed camping supplies, a makeshift bed for the back, and Poco, her beagle/boxer mix.
The 21-year-old had just earned her bachelor’s in English and psychology at Dickinson College. Her desired writing career would have to wait. Listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash and traveling cross country with her soon-to-be husband, could not.
It was spring 1972.
“I was in the middle of hippie culture,” Knowlton said.
Fast forward 20-plus years and Knowlton and her team of employees in the state’s Department of Public Welfare are managing a $6 billion budget. Her career entrenched in the state capital as deputy of secretary for medical assistance programs.
It was intense.
“Everybody thought you needed to do what they wanted you to, not just my boss, or the secretary or the governor or the legislature,” she said. “Hospitals, nursing homes, all these constituents … hundreds of people depended on you. It was exhilarating.”
Fast forward again. This time it’s a cold January day earlier this year. Knowlton, now semi-retired, strolls through her house in Newville. She catches a glimpse of paperbacks stacked on her coffee table. They are advanced copies of her latest book, “Dead of Spring,” the third in her suspense novel series. The moment catches her breath.
“I was like, ‘Sherry, you have written three books!'”
From post-college hippie life, buttoned up state leadership to published author, Knowlton’s career and personal choices always weaved within the boundaries of curiosity, risk and travel. Writing has been the thread pulling it through.
This most recent life chapter – fiction writer – is coming on her terms, however.
“It’s nice to be able to have control over your life.”
Knowlton has published three books in the last three years: “Dead of Autumn” “Dead of Summer” and “Dead of Spring.” Each follows fictional character Alexa Williams, a 30-something attorney, and each book’s backdrop draws from Knowlton’s experiences: working at the state capital, growing up in southcentral Pennsylvania, even her late 1960s free-thinking road trips – one of which delivered her to Woodstock.
“It was the summer after my freshman year,” Knowlton said. A newspaper advertisement about the music festival piqued her interest. “This sounds like a fun thing to do. We had no idea that it would turn out be Woodstock.”
It wasn’t uncommon for the time, Knowlton said, to travel cross-country. Take that post-college trip. It seemed normal for her at the time.
“It was a thing to just take off and go,” she said.
The couple charted a course that first took them to Maine, then west. They stayed in national parks mostly “because they’re cheap and because they’re beautiful.”
Their stops included Colorado and Wyoming, where they eventually found some work. They were heading farther west when their van died. Money that was sent from home, combined with what the couple could scrape together, helped them buy a Javelin. They packed what they could – by this time they added another dog, Zeke, to their crew – and headed back home.
Four months later and only 32 cents in their pockets, they arrived back in Chambersburg.
“It was fun, up until it wasn’t.”
Sherry and Mike married that same year, in October, and Knowlton started looking for jobs in journalism, which were scarce.
She instead found work in a variety of state-related jobs, some of it “mind-numbing” work, she admits. But with every move throughout the state, she achieved promotions and added more responsibility and skill. And she was still able to write.
She worked with children and youth, the state’s department of public welfare and other social service areas. It’s now the equivalent of the Department of Human Services.
“I like doing new things and designing new things … in concert with others. And you could clearly see it was helping other people. A lot of writing involved,” she said.
John White, the Secretary of Public Welfare in the Casey administration at the time, noticed her trajectory. He tapped her to be one of his special assistants, eventually leading her to the deputy secretary position.
“You can affect thousands and millions of people’s lives in good ways or bad ways and that’s a responsibility,” she said.
Knowlton’s final, full-time working years were rooted in Medicaid and managed care work before an early-retirement buyout in 2009 was too good to pass up.
She always wanted to write a book and in semi-retirement – she still dabbled in health care consulting work – the timing was right.
“I wanted to take a shot,” she said.
Her first book, “Dead of Autumn,” was published in 2014. She remembers when the UPS driver delivered the stack of paperbacks to her home.
“Oh, it was pretty crazy… I danced around the house.”
She was 63.
The books hint at Knowlton’s passions: Social and women’s issues, history, government and the Pennsylvania landscape. The main character in the series, Alexa Williams, is a strong female. She’s a little steelier than most. Smart and professional.
“She doesn’t have very good taste in guys,” Knowlton laughed. “but she is working on it.”
The books also deal with social issues. “It’s not clobbering you over the head, but you get the stealth issue,” she said.
Knowlton, now 66, is experiencing the same type of freedom she had in her early 20s: Travel, fulfilling her curiosity, taking risks and just generally having fun.
The writing now falls on her terms.
“When you are young … it gives you freedom that later in life you won’t get to do” she said. “When you are set to retire, you can have that freedom again.”