It’s a time of sadness for fans of the long running CBS drama ‘The Waltons’. Earl Hamner, Jr., creator and narrator of the beloved series, passed away on Thursday, March 24, 2016. According to the message on the Earl Hamner Storyteller Facebook page (written by his son, Scott), Mr. Hamner died peacefully in his sleep at Cedar Sinai Hospital, surrounded by his family as his favorite music was playing. He was 92.
His death was not the first. Other cast members—Will Geer (Zeb Walton), Ellen Corby (Esther Walton), Mary Jackson (Miss Emily), John Ritter (Reverend Fordwick), Helen Kleeb (Miss Mamie), Joe Conley (Ike Godsey), Ralph Waite (John Walton)—have passed on. Some have been gone many years now. Some were lost in the not-so-distant past. For fans of the show, each loss is time of grieving, and a time to gather in various places online with others in the Waltons fan community—people who can best understand the personal sense of loss felt for someone not personally known, but still grieved as if they were a close, personal friend.
That’s the depth of feeling Earl Hamner, Jr. gave life to when he created The Waltons.
The Waltons is based on Earl’s book Spencer’s Mountain, published in 1961. In 1963, a film starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara was made. On December 19, 1971, the Walton family came to life in the television movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.
The cast was a bit different from what it would become on The Waltons. Only the children and Ellen Corby went on to star in the series. Patricia Neal, Andrew Duggan, and Edgar Bergen portrayed the parts of Olivia, John, and Grandpa Walton. Though the movie was never intended to be a series pilot, it was so popular it became one.
The Waltons debuted on CBS in September 1972. John and Olivia Walton, along with their seven children, and John’s parent, live in Walton’s Mountain, Virginia during the Great Depression. John provides for his large family by running a lumber mill with the help of his father and oldest sons. John-Boy dreams of going to college and becoming a writer. The overall theme of the show portrays their struggle of living in particularly hard times through strength of faith, tenacity, and hard work, and the unconditional love of their family.
The Waltons ran for for nine seasons, depicting the years between 1933-1946, before being canceled in 1981.Three television movies aired on NBC in 1982, followed by three more that aired on CBS in the 1990s.
Over a bit of time, I found and purchased each season of The Waltons, and The Waltons Movie Collection on DVD. The funny thing is, when I first saw them at a store, I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy it. When my two oldest kids were a toddler and a baby, I used to watch it from time to time on TV, and I enjoyed it. (That, in and of itself, was a surprise to me, because I hated watching it when I was a kid.) But did I enjoy it enough back then to want to buy it? I wasn’t sure. I dithered about it for a couple of months, and only talked myself into buying it when I saw the first two seasons bundled together for a great price. And that’s when I finally fell in love with the story of this family.
Maybe I needed to be older in order to fully appreciate how wonderful it was. Or maybe it’s lessons were exactly what I needed at that time. I don’t know.
What I do know is, watching The Waltons quickly became a joyful escape away from all the day to day stresses of life. It simply made me happy. While I watched John-Boy struggling to find that perfect word for his story, while I listened to the family’s chatter around the dinner table, while I observed the quiet dignity they possessed during trying times… I felt peaceful inside. And, as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, those moments of peace are precious, indeed. One of my favorite pastimes (after I’d watched it all several times over) was to pop in a DVD, get settled in a comfy position, and crochet while I listened to the now-familiar play out on the television, stopping from time to time to watch especially favored scenes.
The Waltons—that same series I thought was so boring when I was a kid—became a source of inspiration to me. It made me want to be a better person. More caring. More loving. It made me examine my faults, and to try to overcome them.More than anything, it showed me the kind of family I wanted mine to be. I know, I know. It’s a television show. The family and situations portrayed were idealized and real life doesn’t always play out the way things can on TV. Still… it made an impression on me, in a positive way. And I hope it’s help to make me a better person than I was before. I think it has, but it’s not something I can accurately judge myself.
Those are the gifts that Earl Hamner, Jr. gave to me, without ever knowing, when he created The Waltons. The cast, and everyone associated with the show brought it to life, but it all began with him.
And I’m truly grateful.
Good night, John-Boy… and thank you.