John Knight, the 39-year-old man who died in a fall from his balcony in Cape Elizabeth on Saturday, was remembered by friends and colleagues Monday as a brilliant software engineer with a great sense of humor.

“John was an exceptional human being,” said Daniel Cane, a founder of the educational software company CourseInfo, which he, Knight and a group of other Cornell University students built into a multimillion-dollar technology company. “John was one of the big brains behind CourseInfo. He was a brilliant engineer and equally adept in enjoying life.”

CourseInfo was the predecessor of Blackboard Inc., for which Knight worked for 17 years. The company, which is widely used internationally by universities and other institutions to manage course information, went public in 2004 with market capitalization of $77 million. It was sold to a private equity firm in 2011 for $1.6 billion. Knight spent last year splitting time between his home in Maine and Washington, D.C., where he worked with Saylor Academy, provider of online college and professional advancement courses.

“We were then and remain grateful for what I would say was John’s superlative expertise, energy, collegiality and really great humor,” said Sean Connor, director of community relations for Saylor Academy. “We were extremely lucky to have access to someone who was both incredibly friendly and incredibly knowledgeable – just a great colleague all around.”

Knight also worked with the Badge Alliance, a group promoting a system for recognizing learning outside of school so employers and others can evaluate them. At the time of his death, he was president of Knightlabs LLC, which is developing a system for validating online learning credentials. His wife, Erin, with whom he had two young children, is a technological entrepreneur herself. She was senior learning director for Mozilla and executive director of Badge Alliance, and recently started her own company, Badge Labs.

‘A TRAGIC ACCIDENT’

John Knight appears to have fallen off a circular second-floor backyard patio onto paving stones below, authorities said. The railing was in poor shape with rotting wood and was broken where Knight apparently fell through it, said Cape Elizabeth Police Chief Neil Williams. The house, valued for tax purposes at $1.4 million, was built in 2004 and completed in 2005.

The state medical examiner’s office performed an external exam and determined the head injuries were consistent with the fall. There were no indications of foul play.

“Right now, we’re calling it a tragic accident,” Williams said.

A family member found Knight at about 4:45 p.m. Saturday at his home at 10 Tiger Lily Lane in Cape Elizabeth’s Cross Hill neighborhood. The call was initially reported as an unconscious person, but Knight was pronounced dead at the scene.

Knight was last seen picking up groceries at the Cape Elizabeth IGA about 9 a.m. Saturday, Williams said, although police continue to trace his movements in the hours before his death. His immediate family was out of town, but a relative became concerned when he couldn’t reach him and discovered Knight on the ground when he went to check on him.

Knight was educated among a group of young technological wizards at Cornell University.

“I met John along with most of the CourseInfo founders the very first day of Cornell orientation,” Cane recalled. “We all lived in the same area of the same dorm and we all became extremely fast lifelong friends from that point on. … There are no more formative years than to be best friends in college, and to be able to extend that and create a company together was magical.”

A CODE WRITER CALLED ‘BUG’

Knight developed the nickname “Beetle” in the first few days – for his silver-rimmed, mirrored Oakley sunglasses – that stayed with him for much of his life,

“His nickname was around so long, his nickname grew a nickname – bug,” a moniker that stuck while at Blackboard, Cane said.

The group worked hard and enjoyed one another’s company and intellect.

“For John to be up at 3 a.m. writing code would not be an anomaly,” Cane said. “The quality of the code, especially after going out to enjoy ourselves, might have diminished slightly.”

Knight was originally from the Maryland and the Washington, D.C., area, Cane said. When Cane and his soon-to-be wife, who are from different religious backgrounds, wanted to get married but avoid an overtly Jewish or Catholic service, “John took it upon himself to become an ordained minister and fought with the District of Columbia for the right to be the one to marry us.”

Cane said it is not surprising Knight continued to excel in his field or that his wife also is a technological innovator.

“The original crew of Course- Info all went on to become entrepreneurs and technologists and stayed in those fields,” he said. “We forged not only friendships among ourselves but a passion for technology.”

Timothy Chi, chief executive officer of WeddingWire, was among that group at Cornell.

“As a co-founder of CourseInfo and Blackboard, John was an integral part of the team that literally transformed the education industry, worldwide,” Chi said in a statement. “He pioneered many technical innovations that paved the way for how teaching and learning is done today by millions of people at school districts, colleges, and universities globally.”

“John was truly unique in that he always challenged convention and had an incredible gift for seeing beyond the obvious,” Chi said. “John was a dear friend to many and those that had the opportunity to know him will surely miss his kindness, generosity and passion for life.”

Funeral arrangements had not been finalized as of late Monday.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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