By Ursula Thomas Miller
John Knoepfle was bitten by the writing bug in high school in the 1930s while studying Macbeth and other classic literature. “It was intriguing,” says Knoepfle. “By the time I was a senior I was trying to do some of my own. It was very bad and I was very proud of it.”
Today, more than 70 years later, the bug bite hasn’t gone away, but his work has improved. Tremendously, in fact. The 87-year-old Knoepfle has authored more than a dozen books and edited many more. He’s earned fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Mark Twain Award for Contributions to Midwestern Literature, Author of the Year from the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and the Illinois Literary Heritage Award from the Illinois Center for the Book.
Knoepfle spent his career in the writing world, teaching at various universities in Missouri and Illinois while earning his PhD in English at Saint Louis University in 1965. Ultimately he landed at the University of Illinois-Springfield, where he retired as professor emeritus of literature. Surprisingly perhaps for a future lit professor, Knoepfle entered Xavier in 1941 on a football scholarship but lost it after the first year when the program was scaled back. Nevertheless, Knoepfle’s professional fate was sealed once he connected with Paul Sweeney, S.J., founder of the Mermaid Tavern, an undergraduate creative writing club.
As he grew more serious about a career in literature, Knoepfle says he didn’t get much support. “My mother couldn’t figure out where I had come from and my Aunt Augie thought I was crazy, but you do what you want to do,” Knoepfle says. After serving overseas during WWII,
he returned to Xavier to graduate with a bachelor of philosophy in 1947 and master of arts in 1949.
So does the octogenarian still write? You bet. “I try to scratch out a few lines every day,” he says. With a pencil. Knoepfle has a love-hate relationship with the Internet. “It’s a new era. It’s hateful,” he says. “I think everybody hates computers. They demand so much. But the other side of it, if you’re solitary, it gives you something to do.” Still, the “old poet,” as he refers to himself, appears to embrace it on some level. See www.johnknoepfle.com for proof.