TERRE HAUTE — The last thing John Jakes felt like was a future literary icon.
He’d worked into his 40s in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. On nights and weekends, Jakes practiced his passion, writing fiction, to earn extra money for his kids’ college education. He wrote nearly 200 short stories and more than 60 books — science fiction, Westerns, mysteries, even novellas for the Man From U.N.C.L.E. magazines — “at blinding speed.”
Heavier writing projects eluded him. “I was about ready to quit,” he recalled.
Then fate intervened. His advertising career jolted to a stop when the firm lost a lucrative account.
“We lost the account, so what are you going to do?” Jakes explained of his decision to pursue writing full time. “So I thought I would do it, and a couple of years later, the Kent books came along, and the rest is history.”
Jakes was referring to the “Kent Family Chronicles,” an eight-volume series published from 1974 to ’79. Those books detailed the lives of a fictional family enduring the Revolutionary War era. With America celebrating its bicentennial during the 1970s, each installment of Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” sold at least 3.5-million copies. In 1975, Jakes became the first author to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously with the Kent volumes two, three and four.
Thirty years later, more than 55 million copies of the “Kent Family Chronicles” remain in print. So are 10 million copies of Jakes’ 1980s Civil War book trilogy “North and South,” which inspired an ABC television miniseries — the seventh-highest rated miniseries in TV history. Since the first Kent volume, “The Bastard,” Jakes has put 16 consecutive books on the Times’ bestseller list, including last November’s “The Gods of Newport.”
He’s been labeled “the godfather of historical fiction.”
All of those milestones and praise are “something one just shakes his head at,” Jakes said in a telephone interview earlier this month.
Still, during his occasional lectures to college writing students, he reminds them of his long path to success.
“It’s a business of which luck plays a great part,” Jakes said, “and writing students don’t like to hear that, but it really is.”
Midwesterner at heart
Speaking from his home in South Carolina, Jakes clarified the roots of his writing. Though he, his wife, Rachel, and their four children moved there from Ohio nearly three decades ago when the Kent books took off, Jakes corrected some press descriptions of him being “a Southern writer.”
“I consider myself an American writer, not a Southern writer,” he said.
Later, Jakes added, “I suppose I’m still a Midwesterner at heart. I don’t know what that means, though.”
His Midwest ties include living a few of his boyhood years in Terre Haute. Though Jakes was born in 1932 in Chicago, his parents — John A. and Bertha Jakes — moved to Terre Haute while John Jr. (their only child) was beginning his grade-school years. His father worked with the Railway Express Agency, and was “a company man,” constantly transferred from city to city.
Terre Haute was a familiar place for them. It was Bertha’s hometown. Her father, William C. Retz, came to Terre Haute via Cincinnati as a German immigrant, operated a butcher shop on Poplar Street and owned the downtown National Hotel.
While living here, young John Jakes attended the private King Classical School. He began reading stories that came into his family’s home through book club memberships.
“I have vivid memories of Terre Haute, but not in great detail,” said Jakes, now 75 years old. “It was a very nice neighborhood at the time. People sat out on their front porches, and they knew their neighbors. And I think that’s something America is missing now.”
After just a couple of years in Terre Haute, Jakes’ family moved away. But his parents moved back when John’s father retired, and they stayed until their deaths. Bertha Jakes, who lived into her 80s, was active in the Vigo County Historical Society, explained Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick.
John remembers visiting his mother, eating at the old Goodie Shop restaurant on Ohio Street, and taking his children to Deming Park.
Those memories haven’t left him.
“I still long for the good old days when people used to take their kids out to that eastside park and ride the train,” Jakes said.
The past is more than a source of wistful thinking for Jakes, though. Fiction based around actual moments in history has earned him laudatory titles such as “America’s history teacher” and “the people’s author,” according to Ohio State University, one of five colleges to award him honorary doctoral degrees.
That latter title reflects his approachable style of writing, said Brian Tart, president of Dutton books, Jakes’ publisher.
“He’s kind of credited with popularizing historical fiction,” Tart said. “His ‘North and South Trilogy,’ along with the miniseries and the incredible sales, really made historical fiction for real people, rather than for academics and critics.”
Mass-market success often makes popular authors targets for criticism, and Jakes has received both the good and the bad.
“Critics and reviewers always kind of go after the popularizers, for whatever reason,” Tart said.
Such critiques weren’t a problem in Jakes’ humble beginnings. His first professional writing effort, a short science fiction story, earned Jakes $25 as an 18-year-old freshman at Northwestern University, where he studied acting.
Jakes soon realized his true calling was writing and that Northwestern didn’t have the campus atmosphere he sought. So he transferred to DePauw University, and enrolled in that Greencastle liberal arts school’s creative writing program. Jakes graduated from DePauw in 1953, before earning a master’s degree in American literature at Ohio State in 1954. At DePauw, he also met Rachel, a native of Danville, Ill.
Decades later, Jakes returned to DePauw to serve as a visiting professor. He told those aspiring writers that the literary world had changed since his breakthrough “Kent Family Chronicles” hit bookshelves. Now, most publishers are owned by large conglomerates and foreign investors, he said. In the past, smaller publishing houses might take on a book “just because the top guy liked it.
“So it’s a brave new world out there,” Jakes said.
The market for short stories, his first projects, is narrow now. He tells students to pursue full-length thrillers instead.
“I’m not sure I could make it if I had to do it now,” Jakes said.
Jakes’ candid advice appealed to DePauw students, said Tom Emery, a retired English professor at the university.
“The students liked him very much, because he was open with them, and openly critical if he needed to be,” Emery said. “But he was very supportive.”
Jakes’ work ethic served as an example, too, Emery said. While crafting the Kent books, Jakes often wrote 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and did all of his own research, compared to many contemporaries who hired researchers.
“John is a curious mixture of high seriousness about his work, but with great approachability,” Emery said. “He’s both reserved and very open.”
Jakes’ writing pace is not as intense now. It takes him two years to finish a book, and he’s “doing homework” on a novel that may follow up on his series on the fictional Crown family of Chicago, featured in his bestsellers “Homeland” (1993) and “American Dreams” (1998).
Jakes dedicated “Homeland” to his grandfather, William Carl Metz, who died in Terre Haute in 1936 when John was just 4 years old. But in his book dedication, John alludes to a picture of Jakes seated on his grandfather’s lap, most likely taken in Terre Haute.
He wrote of his grandfather:
“There is a photo of him in old age, handsome still with his white imperial, seated in dappled sunlight with a small boy on his knee. I remember that day, or one like it; the sunlight, and a copy of Argosy with a bright yellow cover lying nearby. My grandfather loved good stories. In loving memory.”
Jakes, his publisher anticipates, will keep writing for as long as he’s able.
“He’s a storyteller,” Tart said. “It’s in his blood.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (812) 231-4377.
TERRE HAUTE — The last thing John Jakes felt like was a future literary icon.
Effort under way to restore Civil War monument to original grandeur; ‘Soldier of the West’ unique in state of Indiana
“How sleep the brave, who sink to rest with all their country’s wishes blest.”
A lone soldier sits atop Forest Hill Cemetery in Greencastle. He is seated with his foot on a cannon of long ago, looking westward, perhaps toward the future he fought for. “He” is a stone memorial, rising nearly 30 feet in the historic cemetery. He represents all the men, young and old, from Putnam County who fought and died in the Civil War, and he is aptly titled “Soldier of the West.”
Busy sidewalks … Dec. 6 ‘Miracle on 7th’ event brings crowds downtown
Christmas Music Schedule
Schedule of Events
‘Someday at Christmas’ with Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack coming to ISU Dec. 11
Sandy Hackett’s famous Rat Pack is coming to Terre Haute to ring in a swingin’ holiday season with its critically acclaimed show “Someday at Christmas.”
Hailed as “extremely strong and hugely entertaining,” “Someday at Christmas” blends the classic charisma of the golden age of Las Vegas with some of Ron Miller’s greatest Christmas hits.
Walk of a Lifetime: Writer discovers views fit for a painting while walking the cliffs of Prout’s Neck, home to famous artist Winslow Homer’s seaside studio
Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day walking the Maine seacoast in search of the great artist, Winslow Homer. Join Mike in January for the fifth installment of this series as he visits Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rural New York farm, Steepletop.
Heightened Sense of Place: Educators’ efforts helped put geography back on map in schools
Geography transcends dots on a map.
Teachers traveling abroad alongside Terre Haute geographer Dorothy Drummond have experienced the real-life cultures, atmosphere and people existing within those dots. An educator herself, Drummond has organized affordable geography tours of foreign lands for Wabash Valley schoolteachers for many years. The journeys involved more than sight-seeing.
Fade to Black: A few local theaters among last to part with century-old 35-mm film
The projectionist behind the first movie shown in the Indiana Theatre nearly 92 years ago would likely feel right at home in that same booth today.
HEALING WATERS: Team River Runner offers inspiration, opens doors for wounded veterans
Some people say the fun of boating on the Wabash is dealing with unexpected challenges such a big body of water can present on certain days; others delight in the wild beauty at Terre Haute’s doorstep, from bald eagles soaring above trees lining the banks of the Wabash to the panorama of the river itself as it curls through woodland in many places reminiscent of primeval splendor seen hundreds of years ago.
Leaving ‘footprints on the sands of time’
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‘Abraham’s Family’: New musical illuminates common ground, value of respect the three Abrahamic faiths can share
At a table inside a Denny’s in Terre Haute on a July night in 2012, a trio of theatrical writers conjured a bold idea.
They considered creating a musical based on the story of Abraham, a religious figure to whom three faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — trace their ancestries.
Musical explorer: Quest to see the world is a full-circle journey for Marshall native Chris Bennett
Marshall lies 5,553 miles away from the mountains of Tahiti, far too distant to see from the French Polynesian island paradise.
The small Illinois town can’t be spotted from Germany, either. Or Los Angeles. Or Croatia.
Chris Bennett has performed in all those far-away places, and many others, but her heart needs no GPS to locate her hometown.
Legends of the Valley: Region has its share of spooky stories and paranormal tales
“It’s creepy and it’s kooky, mysterious and spooky, it’s all together ooky,” the Wa-bash Va-al-ley!
Believe it or not — words similar to the old “Addams’ Family” TV show theme song are not far from truth in describing this region that seems to have a high concentration of the paranormal in its legends and modern-day stories — from documented bigfoot sightings, to a long-distance phone call made from inside a tomb, to a ghost at a cemetery you meet after climbing 100 steps — if you dare to count them!
‘Writing is an act of faith ...’ Visiting writer E.B. White, in Brooklin, Maine
BROOKLIN, MAINE — This town of 820 souls sits in the middle of a wonderful nowhere, its craggy toes dangling from rock ledges that hover above the blue Atlantic. For a place that doesn’t seem to have much going on, it has plenty to see, so one day this summer, my wife and I, a week or so into our New England journey, hoped to find the home of writer E.B. White, who lived nearby for over half a century.
Lessons of the Holy Land: New book explores geographic impact of small, but significant place
The appeal of a book based on the geography of a small stretch of land 4,000 years ago might seem limited.
The key is location, location, location, as a real-estate agent might say.
The focal point of a new release involving Terre Haute authors and editors is a place 50 miles wide and 145 miles long — about 10,000 square miles total, or the size of Vermont. The story of that state in 2000 B.C. might garner a niche audience.
River of inspiration: Adventurous spirit leads artist to paint sights up, down the Wabash
Nancy Nichols-Pethick slogged through knee-deep mud in the woods near New Harmony last month. Her quest was to find the ideal view of the Wabash River and sketch the scenery.
Practical knowledge: Retired Parke County resident dedicated career to values, educational bent Extension offers
Being a “guide on the side” with a desire to serve others recently garnered Parke County resident Mark Spelbring the Indiana Extension Educator’s Association’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Career Award.
‘The road less traveled’: The Indiana National Road Association encourages exploration, preservation of ‘the road that built America’
Its significance cannot be overstated. Its past is our past. Our future will be a product of the opportunities it provided. In a young, thriving nation, it loosened the dam on economic development and provided a route for the open floodgates of prosperity. It was the great migration route west. It holds 200 years of history to be uncovered and discovered.
“It” is the Historic National Road, the nation’s first “superhighway.”
Visiting Emily: 'New feet within my garden go...'
In an early stillness that belied the busy streets just outside the door, my wife and I stood in the cool back porch of poet Emily Dickinson’s imposing old house. It was a humid June morning, one that had turned warm after an overnight rain, and there were few visitors to the home of the strange woman who once said, “I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”
Points of interest along the Wabash: Small towns along southern stretch of river offer peaceful sights, historic stops
A drive along highways running parallel to the Wabash River’s southern miles offers peaceful sights.
Points of interest along the Wabash: A few public access points provide unique peeks at river communities
While giving a presentation on the Wabash to a gathering of Indiana State University’s Osher Lifelong Living Institute in June, river enthusiast Brendan Kearns asked how many people in the audience had been “on the river.”
Points of interest along the Wabash: Parks, diners, nightspots — even ice skating — surround Wabash at Lafayette
LAFAYETTE — Lafayette and West Lafayette share the liveliest riverfront on the Wabash.
The most compelling sights depend upon a visitor’s tastes.
GRAPE SENSE: Riedel has been creating grape-specific glasses for nearly 50 years
Anyone serious about wine has probably learned the size of the glass can have an impact on the taste of the wine. You’ve probably seen all those different size and shaped Riedel crystal wine glasses in shops or advertisements and thought it was all silly.
Community Theatre offers up family show ‘Babes in Toyland’ in December
Community Theatre of Terre Haute celebrates the season with the holiday musical, “Babes in Toyland,” based on the operetta by Victor Herbert & Glen MacDonough. It opens this Friday and continues through the weekend.
Tried n True: Tea party cookies, lemon and orange
When you get done with these cookies, you will have two different flavors. Our grandkids loved to make the balls and roll them in powered sugar. I can’t remember when I first got this recipe, but it has to have been at least 40 years ago.
YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Sustainability hubs will leave the world a better place
There is something powerful that happens when people ban together for greater good. In many cities throughout the United States there are sustainability hubs. While each one is uniquely different, they all have the common theme of leaving the world better than when they entered into it.
TRIED ’N’ TRUE: You can’t tell there’s Velveeta in this fudge
At Christmastime we make sweets, candy, cookies, etc. When we were in State Soil and Water, we would bring cookies and candy for the last night at the meetings. A friend of mine, Marie Bunting, brought this fudge recipe and samples.
Usher in the holiday season with … ‘The Sound of Christmas’
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology’s Hatfield Hall will usher in the holiday season with “The Sound of Christmas,” featuring Elisabeth von Trapp and the Carolian Brass, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Community School of Arts open house features steel sculpture
Indiana State University’s Community School of the Arts will host an open house from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Turman Art Gallery in the Fine Arts Building, 649 Chestnut St.
The open house will present an opportunity to meet the teachers, learn more about spring 2014 offerings and register for classes and private music lessons. On display in the Turman Gallery will be artwork created by adult students participating in “Metal Sculpture” and “Digital Photography” classes and children participating in “Saturday Art Day.” There will be a special performance by the “Terre Haute Guitar Club,” and guests can enter a drawing to win a free spring arts class.
Bridgeton to host Country Christmas celebration this weekend
Bridgeton will host its annual Country Christmas celebration from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The shops will be open and full of gifts.
GRAPE SENSE: ‘Today’s Bordeaux’ campaign features more affordable wines
There is an old saying among wine enthusiasts: “The more you drink wine, the more you gravitate toward the French.”
And if you haven’t heard that one, certainly you’ve read and heard people talk about expensive French Bordeaux wines.
TRIED ‘N’ TRUE: A good bread for dishes like spaghetti or lasagna
I have made this bread for many years. It is wonderful with spaghetti or lasagna. I’m not sure where the recipe came from. We all love garlic bread. If you are just starting to make bread, this is a good one. I have taken this bread to the field, carry-in dinners, just about everywhere.
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- Effort under way to restore Civil War monument to original grandeur; ‘Soldier of the West’ unique in state of Indiana