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 email@example.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.