Sunday, April 19, 2009

Jack D. Hunter: 1921-2009

Jack Hunter was the first novelist I ever met.

I was a directionless 21-year-old in my sophomore year at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. I'd briefly attended college in Long Island three years before, then quit school altogether and worked a variety of crappy jobs, from movie theater usher to valet parker to overnight security guard at a condominium complex (the most brain-numbing six months I've ever spent). Going nowhere fast, I decided it was time to return to school, hopefully as far from New Jersey as possible. My grades, however, were awful. I was an indifferent student in both high school and my first attempt at college - straight Cs mostly. I applied to Flagler because a.) it was in Florida; b.) it was (at that time) a small, mostly unknown liberal arts college that just might accept me (total student population was about 700) and c.) it was cheap and offered enough financial aid for me to finance the balance.

As it turned out, going to Flagler was the smartest thing I ever did. I flourished there, met friends I see regularly to this day, and found a pair of teachers who set me on the right path - for awhile at least. (After a year and a half at Flagler, I transferred to Rutgers, but then continued to quit school periodically, eventually getting a degree years later).

One of those teachers was Jack D. Hunter. He taught only one class - a creative writing seminar limited to 12 students. I knew little about him, except that he'd written THE BLUE MAX, the World War I aviation novel that was filmed in 1966 with George Peppard, and half a dozen other books as well. But what I learned from him in that sun-drenched classroom in the spring of 1982 would change my life (and other lives too. Also in the seminar was my friend and classmate John Fusco, who went on to become a successful screenwriter and producer).

I learned a lot about Hunter that semester as well. Though he'd been an aviation buff since childhood, colorblindness had thwarted his ambitions of being a pilot. He'd taught himself German in order to read vintage flying texts (including the memoirs of Manfred Von Richthofen, the Red Baron) in their original language. By the time World War II came around, he was fluent enough to be recruited by U.S. Army Intelligence, who used him as an undercover operative in Germany after the war, helping to round up Nazis attempting to launch a resistance movement against the Allied occupation. He was a self-taught pianist and painter (he did the jacket art for the first edition of THE BLUE MAX, as well as the painting above) and, in addition to his career as a novelist, had done PR work for DuPont and served as special counsel and speechwriter to a U.S. Senator. While teaching at Flagler, he was also a writing coach at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

Hunter gave us an assignment a week, more or less, and I still have all of the corrected mss. he handed back. The first assignment was to write a biographical sketch in narrative form. When I got mine back, he'd written at the top "This is an excellent piece of work. You show great promise indeed. But don't forget to polish. Then polish some more ..."

Hunter was quick to praise, but just as quick to criticize if he thought it would help. Some of the attendees - including another faculty member - were there for the novelty of it. Others were, as Hunter put it, "dilettantes" who had no serious aspirations to be writers. He was a gentleman to all, but if you showed interest and a willingness to listen, he would go out of his way to provide attention and advice. His written comments on my pages would range from "This is the berries" to "Fine work, my lad" to "Where was your polishing rag on this one?," all signed with his characteristic "H." On one mss., a short suspense piece about a woman being stalked on the New York subway, he wrote "You use too many words. You say everything the long way. You must learn to write more tightly, to polish, polish. See my suggestions." He'd marked up the pages that followed, including entire passages he'd ruthlessly X'ed out for trimming.

When the seminar was over, I had a body of work - amateurish as it may have been - and advice to last a lifetime. More importantly, I had a confidence in my writing that hadn't been there before. And in getting to know Hunter, I'd had my first glimpse into the writing life. For all the constant struggles and rare triumphs, Hunter told us, for him, at least, it was still the only life worth living.

On the last day of class, he signed my copy of his current book, THE TIN CRAVAT, a sequel to THE BLUE MAX. Twenty-one years later, I got to return the favor by sending him my first novel, THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, with an inscription thanking him for his guidance at a crucial point in my life. He'd continued to write and publish novels in the intervening decades, even into his 80s. Most were spy novels and thrillers, including FLORIDA IS CLOSED TODAY (set in St. Augustine), THE CURE and THE POTSDAM BLUFF. Last fall, at age 86, he published his 17th novel, THE ACE, bookending his career with another WWI aviation tale (the cover featured a portrait of Hunter himself, taken in 1939 while he was attending Parks Air College in East St. Louis). He'd also embraced the internet, launching a website and regular blog.

I'd kept in touch with Hunter intermittently though the years, and I often heard reports about him from friends who still lived in town. I knew his health had been declining, especially since the death of his wife, Shirley, in 2006 after a long illness. The stress took its toll on Hunter as well, and though he still wrote regularly, he was soon dealing with major health issues of his own. He took on a caregiver/webmaster/bookkeeper named Jonni Anderson and continued to live at his tiny Spanish Colonial house in the center of St. Augustine's historic district. Last October, Jonni messaged me at my site to say she'd found THE BARBED-WIRE KISS on Jack's bookshelf, and that he'd wanted to thank me again for sending it along. I promised I'd visit the next time I was in St. Augustine, but that never came to pass.

On March 27, Hunter wrote what would be his final blog entry. "It's been a real trip, folks, but I'm hanging up my spurs," he wrote. "I've enjoyed writing my blog ... but, due to my increasing physical weakness, it has become more of a burden than a pleasure, and it's time, as the old cliché says, to exit stage right." He'd done his last booksigning only a month before, at a local Barnes & Noble, autographing copies of THE ACE. He passed away April 13, at home.

His Associated Press obituary, as it ran in The New York Times, is here. The Florida Times-Union and St. Augustine Record also weighed in with lengthy tributes.

ABOVE RIGHT: Jack and Shirley Hunter with George Peppard on the set of THE BLUE MAX. Photo courtesy of Jack D. Hunter.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Great story. It took me 30 years to finish college. The right time isn't always at 18.

wstroby said...

You got me beat, only took me 10. Awkward part was that I was hired full-time by a daily newspaper in the interim, and though I didn't tell them I had my degree, they assumed I did, because of my age. I lived in fear of someone finding out and my getting fired. I did eventually get my BA in journalism, but it was a little nervewracking along the way.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The last hippy.
Being the wife of a professor at age 22 without a degree, I was almost embarrassed to finish it up so I took classes at extension centers for ten years before I showed up on campus.
I think your ability to write so well assured that nobody would think to look. That's the thing that counts.

wstroby said...

It might be more common than most people think. NBC anchor Brian Williams (who went to high school one town over from me) never finished college at all. He quit to take a political job in D.C. and never went back. Doesn't stop him from making $10 mil a year though.

Alex said...

Sad news. A tribute site has been set up for UK fans of Jack Hunter to pay tribute:

tintin said...

I remember Jack was one of my first interviews for the school paper. The only tape recorder I could find was someone's ghetto blaster that must have been 4' x 6' and Jack looked at it like it was from another planet.

He always sounded out of breath near the end of a sentence. And there was a real short fuse for BS that I liked a lot. He had a child's face when he smiled but when he frowned it was a different story. I'll always remember telling you to call him on that skydiving story the Times Union reporter did just after yours ran. Watching you get chewed out on the phone by Hunter was one of the hilites of my college experience.

lhiggins said...

As one of Mr. Hunter's daughters, I want to thank you for your excellent article about my dad. You have included many important details, and I enjoyed reading about your personal history. I am delighted to learn that Dad had such a positive impact on your life!

wstroby said...

lhiggins said...
As one of Mr. Hunter's daughters, I want to thank you for your excellent article about my dad. You have included many important details, and I enjoyed reading about your personal history. I am delighted to learn that Dad had such a positive impact on your life!
Thanks very much. My condolences on your loss. Everyone's loss actually. There was no shortage of people whose lives your father had a positive impact on.

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