Between the books he has published and his current position as owner of the Second Reading, John Dunphy certainly has a long history with the written word. 

Dunphy, a native of Alton, Illinois, attended SIUE in the early 1970s. Since then, he has become an acclaimed English-language haiku poet, a published author of several books on the history of southern Illinois and still writes for the Alton Telegraph. 

Dunphy was born in the early ’50s in the Alton area and recalled a turbulent childhood.

“I came from a very dysfunctional family,” Dunphy said. “Both my parents were incredibly ignorant.”

Offering a glimpse into his family dynamics, Dunphy spoke about his father’s hatred of any kind of work, as well as his reaction to a yard full of autumn leaves that needed raking. 

 “He turned to my mother and said, ‘In the fall, the leaves are going to fall, and that’s why they call it fall,’” Dunphy said. “He went back to watching a football game on the T.V.”

Dunphy attended high school amidst the backdrop of much political and social unrest in the U.S. While the country began to boil over with countercultural zeal, Dunphy said he witnessed much of the beginnings of 1960s radicalism from the courtyard of a school which discouraged free thought. 

“It was a Catholic high school, which made it worse,” Dunphy said. “The cruelty had a religious fervor to it.”

After high school, Dunphy started at SIUE in the fall of 1972, becoming the first of his family to attend college. Dunphy said he chose SIUE because it was affordable and convenient – the quarterly tuition was less than $200.

“I was a graduate – or victim, depending on word choice – of parochial school,” Dunphy said. “SIUE was an experience of freedom after the suffocating conformity [and] mindlessness of Catholic school, at least in my day.”

Dunphy said his experience at SIUE was shaped both by his hunger for knowledge and his fascination with the New Left. The New Left was a movement in the 1960s and ‘70s which advocated for a wide range of human rights, including gay rights and the end of segregation. 

 “It was quite a radical campus,” Dunphy said. “I wrote an article about my SIU days called ‘College Life was Pretty Wild in the 1970s’ published in the Telegraph.” 

SIUE had active chapters of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Students for a Democratic Society in Dunphy’s time on campus. However, even with the numerous political and social activist groups on campus, Dunphy said the student body could still be quite hostile to some newer ideas.  

“The diversity you have at SIUE, that was incomprehensible in my day,” Dunphy said. “In spring of 1974, Students for Gay Liberation held a seminar in the Goshen Lounge … The Alestle ran a front-page editorial deploring the verbal violence [and] the threats of physical violence that marred that presentation.” 

Dunphy said his mind was opened to philosophy and world religions through classes he took at SIUE. Alongside established philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche, Dunphy said his classes explored the thoughts of figures such as Karl Marx. 

“We went into some of Marx’s really early writing,” Dunphy said. “This was supposedly the more humanistic Marx. He wrote about the alienation of workers from their workplace, rather than violent revolution.”

Dunphy double majored in history and political science, but left college before he could receive his master’s.

“I drifted aimlessly for some years, did odd jobs to earn pocket money,” Dunphy said. “And then, in the early 1980s, I realized my lifelong dream of becoming a writer.”

It was not until the 1980s that Dunphy said he began seriously writing haiku, a poetic form of Japanese origin with a 5-7-5 syllable structure. Dunphy said he first discovered haiku during high school, by way of an English class and “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts. 

“I was introduced to haiku in freshman year English of high school. It was probably the most useful thing I ever got out of high school. I was instantly taken by it: it just intrigued me, it fascinated me, it possessed me, and I began writing haiku,” Dunphy said. “I didn’t really begin writing haiku seriously until the 1980s, but – even though I didn’t write haiku when I was at SIU – I never lost interest in it. That seed of haiku was inside me, waiting to germinate, and it finally did germinate in the 1980s.”

Dunphy said his relationship with haiku poetry opened his eyes to the small beauties of the world. 

“I enjoy the challenge of saying so much in just a few words, just a few syllables. Haiku quickens your appreciation of the world all around us. Haiku poets typically see things others don’t see, because we have our eyes open,” Dunphy said. “Our eyes, our minds, and our hearts are open, and we see things that most people are utterly oblivious to. It’s like being more alive.”

While he was experiencing success as a haiku poet, Dunphy said he found a second home in an Alton bookstore which has long since closed down. 

“I felt so comfortable surrounded by these books [and] the interesting erudite people who would stop by,” Dunphy said. “I remember thinking, ‘I would be so happy doing this.’”

In 1987, Dunphy acquired the Second Reading Book Shop on E. Broadway in Alton.

“Never made much money, but I’ve been happy here,” Dunphy said. 

However, 1987 did not mark the end of Dunphy’s writing career. Beginning in the early 2000s, Dunphy moved away from articles and began writing for novel publications. 

“I didn’t begin actually writing books and publishing collections of poetry in book form until the early years of this century,” Dunphy said. “It was just time to move on, a gradual transition from articles and newspaper columns to actual books.”

“Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers,” Dunphy’s first published book, was released in 2003, setting the tone for his subsequent books on the topic of southern Illinois history. In the years since, Dunphy has written on topics ranging from abolitionism to holiday traditions in southern Illinois. 

“I believe the Christmas book is in a university in Vietnam, of all places. The Dachau book is in the libraries of many law schools, because it does deal with trials,” Dunphy said. “I take pleasure in thinking that my books are going to schools that I couldn’t afford to go to. They’re kind of like my children, and they don’t have to pay to go to school!"

Dunphy’s “Dachau book” was his foray outside of Illinois history into the previously-unknown stories of a group of war crimes investigators. “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials” was inspired by a reunion held in the Alton area that Dunphy said he heard about.

“I couldn’t not write about it,” Dunphy said. “The gentlemen were getting along in years … so I knew the time to interview them was now.

Today, Dunphy writes a weekly column for the Alton Telegraph, where he focuses mostly on current politics in the U.S. and writes from a left-wing perspective.

“I am loved and hated,” Dunphy said. “I’ve had people stop by the shop and tell me how much they enjoy my columns, then I have people stop by and say, ‘Why are you slandering Donald Trump? What’s wrong with you?’

Between his decades of poetry, his chronicling of southern Illinois history and current commentary on politics, it is safe to say that the flame of Dunphy’s love of writing burns bright to this day.

“I’ve worked long and hard to achieve what I have,” Dunphy said. 

For more information on the Second Reading Book Shop, visit its website.

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