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Terry Johnston; Wrote Historic Novels of Old West

March 29, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He worked as a pipeline laborer, dogcatcher, oil-field roughneck, truck driver, cook, paramedic, roustabout, auto leasing manager and high school social studies teacher.

It proved a perfect background for what he really wanted to do--write historic novels about the Old West he came to love as a kid growing up in the 1950s watching Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on black and white television.

Terry C. Johnston, who wrote more than 30 novels vividly and authentically depicting the American fur trade and the Indian wars of the 1800s, has died. He was 54.

Johnston died Sunday in a Billings, Mont., hospital of colon cancer diagnosed little more than a month ago.

Eerily, Johnston had expressed fear that his own life would end with that of his most famous character, Titus "Scratch" Bass, said Johnston's wife, Vanette. Shortly after the final Bass book, "Wind Walker," was released in February, she said, Johnston was diagnosed with the fatal tumor that ruptured his colon. The author introduced Mountain Man Bass, and launched his writing career, with the publication of "Carry the Wind" in 1982. Although 29 New York publishers rejected the book before a small Chicago company came forward, the tale earned Johnston the Medicine Pipe Bearers Award of the Western Writers of America for best first Western novel.

Johnston went on to write numerous prequels and sequels about Bass, moving the fur trader from a Kentucky childhood to working on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and on to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains as a beaver trapper who marries a Crow Indian.

He penned other multi-volume novels centering on the ill-fated Gen. George Armstrong Custer, 19th century military campaigns against Native American tribes from both white and Indian points of view, and various Indian tribal wars.

"The author's attention to detail and authenticity, coupled with his ability to spin a darned good yarn, makes it easy to see why Johnston is today's best-selling frontier novelist," noted a Chicago Tribune reviewer in 1996, assessing "Buffalo Palace," published that year. "He's one of a handful that truly knows the territory."

Within Johnston's first dozen years of churning out novels, he had more than 10 million books in print worldwide.

"It's probably harder to write historical fiction than straight fiction," Johnston told the Arizona Republic during a book promotion tour last summer, "because you have to satisfy two masters: the authenticity of history and a story that is well-paced and keeps you flipping through the pages."

Born in Arkansas City, Kan., Johnston was the son of a junior college president and a teacher. He earned a bachelor's degree at Central State University in Edmond, Okla.

Moving to Denver, Johnston read everything he could find about the Old West, including 19th century journals until 1974, when he said he finally felt "ready to start some paper through the typewriter." The result was "Carry the Wind."

Johnston was divorced in 1982 from his first wife, the former Doris Howard, with whom he had a son, Joshua.

He is also survived by his wife, Vanette, who said a scholarship will be established in the author's name at Montana State University-Billings. Contributions can be made to that or to the Save the Battlefield Assn., in honor of Johnston's efforts to preserve land around the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

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