Acclaimed Hilton Head author gets S.C. award

February 15, 2008 

John Jakes

Much of the breathless drama that turned John Jakes into "the godfather of the historical novel," "the people's author" and "America's history teacher" has been clicked out on a computer keyboard, six to eight hours a day, five days a week, right here.

He and Rachel moved to Twin Pines Road 30 years ago.

"The old homestead in Sea Pines has been razed, presumably to allow another McMansion to be built," he said. "I am melancholy about it because in that house I wrote the eighth and final Kent Family novel, all three volumes of the North and South Trilogy, and a good part of 'California Gold.'"

Within his subdued island homes, Jakes' imagination has danced a jig on the cobble-stoned histories of Charleston, Savannah, and all of America.

At this point, he could write a list of awards and honors as thick as one of his "door stopper" novels of historic fiction, like the "Kent Family Chronicles" and the "North and South" trilogy. But he won't.

Not Jakes, who this week learned he will receive one of his adoptete's highest tributes. In April, the S.C. Arts Commission will present Jakes with the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Governor's Award for the Arts. It will be for lifetime achievement, which for Jakes is 75 years and counting.

Jakes has been writing professionally since he was 18 -- when $25 for a magazine piece about a diabolical toaster would end up flipping the literary world. He's now sold more than 50 million books, including 18 consecutive New York Times bestsellers. He was the first writer to have three books on the list in the same year. He's been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize.

On the island, Jakes is a regular at the Rotary Club, but he keeps a low profile.

He patronizes the public library, and strongly supports it. He was a regular at the old Community Playhouse, and he was among seven "founders" honored for making its successor, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, come about. He drummed up support by quoting scripture: "Man shall not live by bread alone."

That need for the arts is universal, Jakes told me Thursday from his winter home in Florida. But in South Carolina, he said, the more immediate need is accessibility to the arts.

Then he told me a story. It was about his stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" -- one of two pieces the old thespian wrote for world premieres on the local stage. Later, at the suggestion of arts center director Kathleen Bateson, Jakes further adapted the timeless story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim. He crafted a 50-minute touring version, with eight actors playing 23 roles on rickety stages with no lights and no sound in schools throughout the poorest pockets of the same Lowcountry.

"It made theater accessible to the kids," Jakes said. "I think that's the greatest need."

That story is not a torrid page-turner, but it's one of the quiet lifetime achievements of John Jakes.

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