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Of Time and an Author


Our house is built on a rock in a river.

So begins "Of Time and an Island", a love letter to the Thousand Islands penned by an American writer who put a small Canadian island near Rockport on the map.

Journalist John Keats or "JK" as he was known has left a literary legacy to Pine Island. "Of Time and an Island" tells the story of the Washington newspaper reporter who buys the island with his wife Margaret for their three children, Christopher, Margaret and Victoria in the 1950s.

While Keats wrote the foreword well over three decades ago, "Of Time and an Island" remains a classic Thousand Islands book that captures the nostalgia of island life in the St. Lawrence River.

The author, who would commute from Washington D.C. for weekends on the island, left the Washington Daily Times in 1953 to be a freelance writer.

As a correspondent for such magazines as True, Outdoor Life, Esquire and Field and Stream, JK wrote in the mornings on an Underwood typewriter in his office – a separate structure located at the other end of the island from the family's cottage. The Keats stayed for six months of the year with the children even attending school in Rockport in the autumn. The family spent winters in Philadelphia.

"He was very disciplined," recalled his daughter Victoria Frost. "He wrote from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day no matter what."

There was no electricity or telephone, she added.

"He was always in the cottage at the head of the island, writing."
Keats was born John Chesswell Keats in Moultrie, Ga. He served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II. He returned home to find work as a newspaper copy editor and reporter.

But go on to write hundreds of magazine articles and 13 books starting with "The Crack in the Picture Window" which took aim at sprawling suburban housing developments.

 

He also broadsided Detroit automakers for making huge vehicles fashionable with "Insolent Chariots." He also wrote "They Fought Alone" about guerilla fighting in the Philippines.

He produced two biographies: "Howard Hughes: The Biography of a Texas Billionaire" and "You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker."

"He was one of the best biographers of her," said Ward Morehouse III, who befriended Keats in the Thousand Islands. His family owns Fancy Rock Island  near Pine Island.

Morehouse III, a writer and author in New York City, credits Keats with helping him prepare for one of his first jobs as a reporter for the New York Post.

"He was a journalist first and foremost," he said. "He was old-school. He practiced his craft. "Keats' tender tribute to a special place in 'Of Time and an Island' was a departure from his other works.

"He wrote a love letter to the Thousand Islands but he would be the thorn in the sides of big business," said Morehouse.

"Of Time and an Island," published in 1974 by Charterhouse is a dispatch of island life with references to Grenadier Island, Blue Herons, The Lost Channel, pike fishing and Rockport's Ed Huck Marina.

Keats died in 2000 at the age of 79. Pine Island remained a constant throughout his life.

He spent summers at the two-acre island with his family and in his final years alive, even making visits from a nursing home in Kingston accompanied by staff. His wife Margaret Bodine Keats died in 1993.

"He thought the place had a timeless quality about it," said his son, Dr. Christopher Keats of Washington D.C. "He was very moved by that."

As a younger man, Keats enjoyed fishing in the river and telling stories.

"He was notoriously outspoken," said his son. "He would always hold court. There was a lot of swagger to him. He would stand up to anything."

Keats spent his summers on Pine Island but often spent his winters in exotic locales on an island in Italy and the British Isles when he wasn't in Philadelphia.

Keats said "Of Time and an Island" remains his father's most autobiographical work and captures an idyllic age.

"We didn't know any different but we thought it was great," said Keats of summers on Pine Island. "We just loved it."

Keats accepted a position to teach magazine writing in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1974. The move meant he would only have a two-hour commute to Pine Island.

Former student Doug Brunk recalled Keats as a larger than life professor. "He could be humorous, self-deprecating and crude all in the same paragraph," he said.

Brunk, of Spring Valley California, became friends with Keats while enrolled in the Masters Degree of Journalism program at Syracuse. He edited a book by Keats on non-fiction writing titled "What, in Ten Words or Less, is All This Nonsense About?"

Brunk visited his professor on Pine Island in the early 1990s.

 

"Pine Island was just a haven for him," said Brunk.  "It let him be free. That was his domain. That was his den."

The Keats family still owns the island and returns for vacations every summer with new generations learning about the Thousand Islands.

"It made a big impact on our lives," Keats' daughter Victoria Frost said of the memories of Pine Island.

"We're like homing pigeons over on the island," she said of the family's annual returns to her father's favorite place. As Keats himself wrote in "Of Time and an Island:" "Nothing has changed in this always new and infinitely old center of our lives."

By Kim Lunman kimlunman@thousandislandslife.com

© Copyright Kim Lunman 2009, All Rights Reserved

Kim Lunman is an award-winning Canadian journalist who lives in her hometown of Brockville, "the City of the 1000 Islands." The former national correspondent for the Globe and Mail's Victoria and Ottawa bureaus, Lunman has also worked as a reporter for the Calgary Herald and Saint John New Brunswick Telegraph Journal. Kim is the recipient of a National Newspaper Award for feature writing and received a National Newspaper Award citation of merit for enterprise reporting. Kim was also was nominated for a Michener Award, the highest honor in Canada for public service journalism. Her freelance writing has appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard, the National Post, South China Morning Post, VIA Destinations and Reader's Digest.

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Comments

Mike Heberling
Comment by: Mike Heberling ( )
Left at: 1:17 PM Thursday, January 15, 2009
I own Boomerang Island on the US side of the 1000 Islands and am familiar with Pine Island near Bluff Island (near Clayton, NY). But, looking at a nautical chart of the Rockport area, I cannot find Keats' Pine Island. Can you identify it with reference to a larger island?
Stan Ren
Comment by: Stan Ren ( )
Left at: 3:44 PM Thursday, January 15, 2009
I read John's book about a year ago when it was loaned to me by the son of a St Lawrence river resident. It was a most enjoyable reading experience as it caused me to recall the trials and tribulations of living on a farm with no electricity for 5 years when I was a youngster. It was also writtne is such a manner that you lived the experiences at the time as they occurred. We have been going to the islands for over 50 yrs and have owned some land on Wallace Island for 26 yrs.
Dan Murray
Comment by: Dan Murray ( )
Left at: 1:44 AM Friday, January 16, 2009
Mike, small world!. I too live in Fort Worth but spent many summers in the Rockport area while growing up. You won't find their Island marked as Pine Island on nautical charts, my brother and I have discovereed it is unamed on most charts. It is between Zavikon and Yeo Islands across from Rockport. We've cruised past a few times and recognized the houses that JK described in the book.
Karen Snedeker
Comment by: Karen Snedeker ( )
Left at: 6:16 AM Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Mike, Pine Island is the tiny island directly across from the head of Mary Island, the state park, separated by a narrow waterway from Wellsley Island. It has the little square cottage situated atop the island facing south. You go past it to and from Alexandria Bay. If you do not find it, come to Neil's and my porch and we'll point it out to you as we can see it from there. Two of Mr. Mr. Keats' did some yard work for us about 10-12 years ago when they were teenagers. Nice boys, probably now all grown up with children of their own. Mr. Keats never mentioned the "Kentish Maid", which I heard was their boat. I see it go by on occasion when I am on the porch. Neil and I look forward to seeing you and Gayla this summer at the river.
mel moyer
Comment by: mel moyer ( )
Left at: 6:57 AM Thursday, August 19, 2010
I spent summers on Pine Island as a boy. At that time it was owned by Albert Baker. Does anyone know what happened to them or when the island was sold. My recollection is that it is about 3 acres. The Bakers lived over the boat house and there was another cabin near the opposite side of the island. We would like to visit again and would be most grateful for any information.
Bruce Sherman
Comment by: Bruce Sherman ( )
Left at: 9:34 AM Thursday, January 19, 2012
Hi!... My family and I had the wonderful good fortune to summer at The Narrows... between Tar Island and the Canadian mainland for over 50 years.
I had summer jobs that brought me into minor contact with the Keats and Bodine families in that early peeriod.

I had the good fortune this year to actually paint the Zavikon from Pine Island at The 1st Annual Plein Air Painters' Paintout hosted by Rockport.

As fortune would have it... I will be setting up house and gallery in Rockport once again! Home at last!!!


Keli O'Brien
Comment by: Keli O'Brien ( )
Left at: 9:45 PM Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Hello, I am the grand-daughter of Dr. Thomas A. O'Brien. My grandfather bought Pine Island in the 30's. My father, Ronald K. O'Brien spent summers as a young boy with his older brothers and cousins growing up on Pine Island. I recognize the the boat above as "The Garwood". I have lots of pictures of the island, the garwood and the ice house from the 30's and 40's.
I am excited to share my love and history for the island.

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