John Knoepfle: husband, father, grandfather, recipient of Purple Heart (shrapnel for proof!), poet, storyteller: 25-plus books that garnered many prizes – among th em the "Mark Twain Award for Poetry" and "lllinois Writer of the Year" – professor, collaborator, mentor, colleague, friend and skilled harmonica player in a dulcimer band, performing with it a few weeks before his death.
John, at 96, after a brief hospital stay, returned to a welcoming crowd at Hickory Glen. Back in his apartment he settled into his favorite chair with Peg alongside, and all his children, and took a final breath. None of us could ask for a more peaceful passing, or a more fulfilling life.
The above, though, only outlines what John was. He was mainly a listener – to his family, friends, students and, importantly, to the ordinary sort of person who made no claims of importance – he paid attention to their words and thoughts. He spoke sparingly, nor did he lecture – though his knowledge was great – unless asked to expand on something. It was a privilege to me to have an adjacent office at the university. My favorite memory is our leaning on a mutual sill, Brookens third floor, while John pointed out the kittens living in abandoned pipes in the service courtyard below. For several years we companionably took time to watch catlife come and go, and John joined the petition supporting staff that were leaving snacks for these animals.
John dug deep into history, especially prehistory and archaeology. He was acutely aware of the past – was taking a rather gloomy view of the present ("If you weren't living it you wouldn't believe it!") – and working toward a brighter future: though he pondered more on the world's demise than on his own.
He exhibited patience and tolerance. He accepted frailties, in himself and others, and applauded the strengths and accomplishments of others, too, though he was exceeding modest about his own.
He had a quirky sense of humor, and an infectious laugh. Ask to see the photos of him in a Neanderthal outfit, in Oakridge Cemetery beside a "prehistoric" tomb, carrying an enormous bone, about to confer a poetry prize on an apprehensive student. Peg was similarly garbed; the couple were Neanderthals again later at several Halloweens. Here might be the place to say that John always considered Peg the sun at the center of his life, and made this clear in his writing, his actions, and an occasional word to a friend.
A year ago, John published an exquisite book of Chinese poetry in translation, collaborating with Yang Shouyi, a former Sangamon State University special student and professor. And we aren't done with John's new work yet: he recorded, in the 1950s, old-timers who'd worked on paddle-wheel boats pulling barges on the Ohio and Illinois – a breed of man and activity now vanished. He transcribed these interviews through SSU's oral history program, preserved them in the university's archives, and recently wrote a foreword with observations. That book, which he dedicated to Cullom Davis, is now in publishing process.
And John's own poetic words are still here and speaking to us, his "old man poems" written during his last few years. Some are funny, some descriptive, some exasperated, many with tongue in cheek. These need winnowing, ordering and publishing. Let's give tribute to John Knoepfle with one of these: like the poetry column he began in Illinois Times he uses no capitals, no punctuation, no rhyme, and no title:
snow last night
melted by this afternoon
strange so late in the spring
something to do with climate
climate changing that is
the earth veering on its axis
time running out perhaps
what will replace us
hordes of ladybugs perhaps
with superior intellects
thinking with the speed of
the latest calculators
bugs writing epics perhaps
Jacqueline Jackson taught with John Knoepfle at SSU/UIS. She writes the weekly poem in Illinois Times, and has deliberately followed Knoepfle's IT style.