David Lauderdale

Author writes 'the end' to time on Hilton Head

Best-selling author John Jakes has left Hilton Head Island after 32 years.

He contributed a lot -- to the library, the old community theater and the arts center that succeeded it. He even gave the island the gift of his version of "A Christmas Carol" in 1988.

John and Rachel Jakes moved to Sarasota, Fla., last week for a number of personal reasons. They needed to downsize from their large home in Spanish Wells. They've been wintering in Sarasota for several years, anyway. It's a haven for writers, and he's already active in The Liars weekly gathering of writers started by John D. MacDonald in 1952. He's on the board of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall owned by the city.

And, not to be morbid, Jakes says, but at 78 many of his best friends here have died. He mentioned losing three close friends from the Hilton Head Island Rotary Club in the past year, Al Gnesin, Howard Farmer and Bob Sullivan.

But Jakes also says he's leaving a place that "has lost what we came there for."

John and Rachel Jakes slipped into town with two cats and no fanfare in 1978, longing for quiet, privacy, natural beauty and warmer weather than Dayton, Ohio.

"I like to wear shorts and I don't like to wear a necktie and I used to go into a blue funk every December," he said in his first interview then with The Island Packet.

The year before he moved to Sea Pines, Jakes became the first author ever to have three books on The New York Times bestseller list in one year. A TV miniseries version of "The Bastards" was a big hit that spring, and producers were cueing up "The Rebels" and "The Seekers" right behind it. He was busy at his IBM typewriter banging out "The Americans," the eighth and final book in "The Kent Family Chronicles." And he was anxious to escape all the "collaborators" who beat a path to his door in Ohio, including a man who wanted Jakes to join him in writing about his experiences during male menopause.

Here he wrote the "North and South" Civil War trilogy, dedicating it to his island friend Jonathan Daniels, co-founder of the Packet. Then came "California Gold," "Homeland" and "American Dreams." When the novel "Charleston" came out in 2002, it became his 15th consecutive New York Times bestseller. "Savannah or a Gift for Mr. Lincoln" followed in 2004 and "The Gods of Newport" in 2006.

The Jakeses were familiar figures at the Beaufort County Public Library branch on Hilton Head. At first, he worked the staff to death, ordering scores of history books that had to be shipped in back then. But they also contributed a lot to the library, lobbying for its larger, new facility. And he and Rachel volunteered with its annual used-book sale.

He directed a Readers Theater, and was an actor, director and board member at the old Community Playhouse. Jakes was a leader for 15 years pushing for the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. The arts center gave him its Reflection Society Tribute. Among his statewide honors are the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Governor's Award for the Arts from the S.C. Arts Commission for lifetime achievement.

The Hilton Head that attracted Jakes was a place where islanders left their medals at the bridge.

It was a place where most people and buildings blended into the scenery. Jakes said he enjoyed the "Round Table" cocktail hour at Jonathan Daniels' house for more than a year before he knew one of the regulars was the D-Day hero portrayed by John Wayne in "The Longest Day."

"It was not a big-bang tourist attraction," he said.

"It was one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen. Everything good about Hilton Head Island was put there by God, or nature, not by a developer or a tourism promoter."

He says the library and theater are vastly improved since he arrived 32 years ago.

But he warns anyone proposing a performing arts center that it will require more than Hilton Head can likely provide. It requires dowagers the island does not have, and more than 300 packed performances a year, he said. Be skeptical of any numbers showing a performing arts center working here, he said.

Now in Florida, things have come full circle for Jakes.

He's going to help Dallas Dunnagan, artistic director for The Naples Players, on his adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" this winter. Dunnagan directed its world premiere at the Hilton Head Playhouse in 1988.

Jakes leaves saying he got much more out of South Carolina than he gave it. The state's magnificent history, good and bad, was a grand resource for the prolific Chicago native who came looking for peace and quiet.

We're blessed that he found it here, in the longest chapter of a remarkable life.