John Jakes, famous Kettering author of American Bicentennial series, dies at 90

John Jakes, a famous historical fiction writer from Kettering, died Saturday at a hospice facility in Florida. He was 90.

Although best known for his historical fiction, Jakes didn’t like to be pigeonholed into one genre. He wrote more than 60 novels and hundreds of short stories, including mysteries, science fiction, westerns, musicals, plays and children’s books.

While studying acting at Northwestern University, Jakes wrote his first real story. It was a 1,500-word story called “Machine,” about a toaster with a demonic soul which took possession of its owner. It landed in Fantasy and Science magazine. From that point on Jakes was hooked on writing and gave up acting.

Jakes enrolled in the creative writing program at DePauw University following a year at Northwestern.

DePauw is where he met his wife Rachel, who would later be a substitute teacher in the Kettering school district. The couple raised four children in Kettering and were married for 71 years.

At age 20, as a sophomore at DePauw, Jakes had his first book published, a children’s book titled “The Texans Ride North.”

Jakes thought he might become a teacher, so he went to Ohio State for graduate work. It didn’t last, and Jakes when into advertising to support his family. He wrote in his spare time.

In the early 1970s, Jakes almost quit writing. He had been in advertising for 15 years creating sales presentations.

A phone call in 1973 changed that. The call was from Lyle Engel, probably the biggest independent book producer of the time. He was looking for someone to write a series of books for the American Bicentennial celebration.

Jakes was the author of an American Bicentennial book series that featured different members of the Kent family, connecting them with historical events at the time of the American Revolution.

Jakes said in a 1974 Dayton Daily News article that his writing day is much like another person’s working day. He fit his work to a schedule. “I start in around 8:15 in the morning,” he said from his basement study room at 148 Pelham Dr. in Kettering. “I study the research material I’ve gathered the day before for my day’s writing, then I start writing. I usually finish writing around 1 or 2 p.m., then go back over what I’ve done and make minor corrections.

In 1976, Jakes became the first writer in history to have three books listed among the New York Times’ top 10 paperback best sellers in one year.

When he started the series, it was intended to be five books, but the publisher pushed him to make it eight books. In order to catch up, he was writing seven days a week.

When the eighth and final Kent novel, “The Americans,” came out, Walden Books, then the nation’s largest bookstore chain, sold 50,000 copies in one week.

The American Bicentennial book series went on to sell over 55 million copies.

During the 1980s Jakes wrote a “North and South” Civil War series trilogy, which also sold over 10 million copies.

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