One day when I was a young man working at The Denver Post, a reporter I admired dropped by my desk to give me some surprising news. His name was John Dunning, he was a few years older than I, and struck me as equal parts 1930s movie character and Jack Kerouac protagonist.
John was enjoying some success at that powerful old-line publication back in the days when newspapers were an important part of a community’s information infrastructure. Not too long before he’d been appointed to the prestigious IR team, investigative reporters comprised of the five best on the staff who were given liberal time and resources to pursue stories. It was a prime assignment.
“Wanted you to know,” he told me, “I just quit. Decided I’m gonna write novels.”
“Wow. Good luck with that,” was all I could say. I was stunned.
John’s career as a novelist got off to a very slow start. Meanwhile, he indulged his other two passions. He opened an antiquarian bookstore on East Colfax called the Old Algonquin, which grew to be a very respected and reasonably profitable enterprise. He also pursued his love for old-time radio shows, tracking down and compiling what became a very extensive collection of drama and comedy from that time before television when radio was the broadcast source of news and entertainment.
All the while, John rose daily at 5 a.m. and wrote without interruption until noon. Though his fiction writing took a while to find an audience, by the mid-Seventies he had written Tune In Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio 1925-1976, which very quickly became recognized as a seminal work in the field and is today a highly sought-after collector’s item. It followed up and greatly enhanced the reputation of what became his long-running weekly broadcast Old-Time Radio, which is where John and I found ourselves working together again.
In its brief and glorious run as Colorado’s premiere freeform radio station, KFML AM&FM incorporated a staggering amount of innovative programming. In addition to its 24/7 menu of creative, knowledgeable radio staff playing tunes from every genre of music, it had an improv comedy group, High Street, that riffed off old movies on local television station Channel 2; a Roots of American Music show hosted by the late Chuck E. Weiss; and, a Sunday gospel and blues show hosted by Denver Folklore Center founder Harry Tuft, which was followed by John’s selection of classic radio shows from the pre-television era.
Those of us who did music shows there were some of those guys’ biggest fans. And although John and I didn’t run into each other there all that often, Sunday usually being a day of recuperation for me after those rather intense weekend evenings of the time, I really enjoyed his shows.
How he found time for everything he was doing was a mystery, but his persistence as a writer finally paid off. He published a couple of fictionalized histories that got modest attention, and then in the Nineties, some 20 years after he began, John put his name up in lights with a series of mysteries based on the antiquarian book business and starring the character Cliff Janeway. The first of them, Booked To Die, won the Nero Award, and several of his other works have been Edgar Award and Anthony Award nominees.
It was about then that John and I found ourselves on the same block once more. When I got back to Colorado from Montana, I purchased a used bookstore from an old beat character named Tony, who, like several other bookmen, had opened a shop adjacent to the Old Algonquin on what became known as Book Row. John by now was a longtime denizen of the book trade and was a great neighbor to spend time with when business was slow.
We all were visited by book scouts, a mixed bag of guys and a few gals who canvassed other shops, Goodwill stores, and garage sales looking for valuable volumes. One was a guy named Greg, whom none of us liked but tolerated because he came up with good material. When John told me one day he was writing Booked To Die, he said, “Yeah, it’s great. I killed off Greg in the first chapter.”
John quit writing a while back but still operates the Old Algonquin as an online bookstore. He seems to have achieved what he set out to do when he said goodbye to the newspaper business in 1970.
Looking back over the time I’ve known him, John Dunning was one of the most unusual and interesting people I’ve encountered, a guy a little older and of a different time who followed his passions and made them work for him. We came at things from very dissimilar origins and attitudes, and yet ended up in many the same places at the same time. It’s a mystery who peoples our life and why, but John and I kept running into each other over a long stretch while we were growing up and finding our way. It suggested to me I should pay attention and I’m glad I did.