John J. “Jack” Koblas was fascinated by Old West outlaws who rode into Minnesota and mobsters who set up shop in St. Paul.
He was a man who loved history and the stories that rose from it, so the Minneapolis native spent a lifetime researching and writing nearly 100 books. He wrote about Jesse James and the Younger Gang, as well as mobster Ma Barker and her boys. He wrote about the Civil War, the Indian wars and the Old West. He wrote books about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, penned poetry and authored children’s books.
“He was always in his office writing poetry and short stories,” said his daughter, Stephanie Koblas-Rugg of Apple Valley. “He used to show us stories that he wrote when he was a kid.”
When he wasn’t writing, he was teaching and lecturing about it, she said. “He definitely had a fan base.”
Koblas, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease for about a decade, died March 8 from heart failure, his daughter said. He was 70.
“He was an eclectic character,” said Jeffrey Broberg, a friend. “He was into so many different things, and would delve into the details so he could absorb it all. He was a wonderful conversationalist and storyteller.”
Longtime friend Janet Goodman knew Koblas back in high school, when “I had a crush on him,” she said. For years, they only saw each other at high school reunions. But 10 years ago, she began helping him with his book-signing events. “He called me his publicist,” she said. “I wasn’t. I just liked to listen to him whether he was talking or playing music,” she said.
Koblas, a pianist, began training in classical music when he was 5 or 6 years old, Goodman said. But by the time he was a teen, he’d traded Beethoven for doo wop, rock ’n’ roll and a local band called the Magpies. From 1959 to 1968, the Magpies played in local bars, dance halls and at weddings and was inducted into Minnesota’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, she said.
When his band days ended, Koblas continued playing piano, his daughter said. And he traveled.
“Some of my best memories growing up was traveling with my dad. We went everywhere you could drive — all over the United States, Canada, Mexico.”
They took in the natural wonders — mountains, waterfalls and glaciers. And “we always had to do the history stops. So there was always this random grave site belonging to someone we didn’t know or an old ghost town or a rundown building that had significance to him,” Koblas-Rugg recalled.
“But he always made time to stop at amusement parks or public pools for us kids.”
Koblas is also survived by two other daughters, Stacy Radcliff of Prescott, Wis., and Sarah Koblas of Eagan; a son, John, of Savage; six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Services have been held.