Mountain Memories: An Interview with Earl Hamner, Jr., Creator and Executive Producer of The Waltons
Written by Karen Brewer
Earl Hamner, Jr. sits on the porch of his boyhood home in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
“I have walked the land in the footsteps of all my fathers, back in time to where the first one trod, and stopped, saw sky, felt wind, bent to touch mother earth, and called this home, this mountain, this pine and hemlock, oak and poplar, laurel wild and rhododendron, home and mountain. Father, mother, grow, too, the sons and daughters, to walk the old paths, to look back in pride, in honored heritage, to hear its laughter and its song, to grow to stand and be, themselves, one day remembered. I have walked the land in the footsteps of all my fathers. I saw yesterday, and now look to tomorrow.”
In describing the land of his fathers in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the words of Earl Hamner, Jr. have created, for many, a sense of home.
The Hamners were poor monetarily, but rich in love and a sense of history and heritage. Thanks to the eldest of eight, their family increased by millions with the September, 1972 debut of The Waltons television series, which was created by Earl Hamner, Jr. and developed from the Christmas Eve, 1971 television movie The Homecoming, based on his book by the same name. (His earlier novel Spencer’s Mountain had been turned into a film starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara in 1963.)
Set during the Great Depression, the Walton family’s life story was told through the eyes of eldest son John Walton, Jr., nicknamed John Boy, an aspiring writer. The series was based on the boyhood of its creator, Earl Hamner, Jr., born July 10, 1923, and it was he who narrated each episode. Hamner modeled Walton’s Mountain after the small village of Schuyler, Virginia, where he grew up, 26 miles south of Charlottesville. He wrote about his family, he once said, because “to be a good writer, one should write about what one cares for most passionately.”
“I love the mountains,” Hamner told this writer. “It feels wonderful to go home. I love to go back where I grew up, and see places that have such special memories.”
He remembers his mother’s good cooking. His family tended a garden, and his mother canned tomatoes, corn, and squash for winter. Peach orchards were nearby, and his mother often made peach preserves.
Other fond memories include learning to milk a cow, fishing in Drucilla’s Pond, going with his father to visit the two ladies who became the Baldwin sisters in the series, and taking trips to Charlottesville. Other special moments included the time his family had electricity installed in their home in the late 1920’s, as well as the time indoor plumbing was installed for the first time. Graduating from Schuyler High School in 1939 also holds cherished memories. Where the Schuyler Post Office now sets was the Hamner family’s cow pasture. “In the middle of the cow pasture, there used to be the most beautiful old crab apple tree,” he said. “I used to love seeing the seasons change as the crab apple tree changed.”
He would often make trips from his California home to his hometown in Virginia in the spring of each year, to see the dogwoods blooming, and in the autumn, to see the leaves turning color.
Most important to see through the years were members of his family.
The births of his brothers and sisters hold fond memories for him. “We’re still close,” he said of his brothers and sisters who are still living. “We talk on the telephone and send e-mail back and forth and write letters. We’re still a close family.”
In The Homecoming, the Walton father and mother were portrayed by the late Andrew Duggan and the late Patricia Neal, and the grandfather was played by the late Edgar Bergen, an actor and ventriloquist whom Hamner had listened to on the radio. All other casting remained the same for the series. When Neal died, in 2010, Hamner wrote of when his mother and Neal had met: My mother was a country woman who had spent most of her life having children and nurturing a family. Her life was a dramatic contrast to the life of a legendary film actress. Curious, he asked his mother what she and Neal had talked about. “Lots of things,” she replied, “but mostly about our children.” Two great ladies whose lives briefly touched. It was a privilege to know each of them.
In The Waltons, the Walton parents, John and Olivia, were portrayed by Ralph Waite and Michael Learned.
In real life, Earl Hamner’s parents were Earl Henry Hamner, Sr. and Doris Marion Giannini Hamner, both of whom were beloved by their children.
Referring to his father, himself the youngest of 12 children and who passed away in 1969, Earl Hamner, Jr. once wrote that, although his father had no formal education, he was a wise man. He has a photograph of his father as a young boy holding a pet duckling. He wrote of his father, He used to tell us that each day he would squeeze the little duck in the belief that a daily squeeze would keep the duck small and prevent it from growing up. Shortly after the photograph was taken, the duckling died. Looking back on that childhood incident, he said to me, ‘If you don’t let a thing grow the way it was meant to, it will die on you.’
“My father was very much like the way Ralph Waite played,” Hamner told this writer. “He loved to fish, which is something I share with him. He was kind of a rascal, but he was decent and kind.”
Earl Hamner’s mother, who also had little formal education but who loved books and learning, and who would welcome Waltons fans visiting Schuyler, passed away in 1990. He once paid tribute to her by writing: “When I think of my mother today, it is her singing voice that first comes to mind. She had a pretty voice, and she loved to sing. She raised eight children during a period of great hardship in our country. She was a remarkable woman. I know that her faith in God sustained her, but I also think that part of her ability to prevail was to look hardship in the face, and sing.”
“My mother was very much like the mother on The Waltons,” Hamner told this writer. “She was a very religious woman, and a pretty lady, like Michael Learned. She used to say that she ought to get eight high school diplomas, because she went through graduating school with each of her children. She was an adventuresome woman. She loved to fly, and would often fly to see us.
“The first and probably the most important influence in every person’s life is family,” he said. “I was very fortunate. In my family, I had a remarkable mother and a steadfast father – a very secure family life – and I think that’s translated into my writing. It was a very stable upbringing.”
The Walton grandparents, Zeb and Esther, played by the late Will Geer and the late Ellen Corby, were, in reality, a combination of both sets of grandparents: Earl, Sr.’s parents, Walter Clifton Hamner and Susan Henry Hamner, and Doris’ parents, Anderson Giannini and Ora Lee Mann Giannini.
The Walton sons and daughters were played by Richard Thomas as John Boy (and Robert Wightman in some episodes), Jon Walmsley as Jason, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen, Eric Scott as Ben, Mary McDonough as Erin, David Harper as Jim Bob, and Kami Cotler as Elizabeth.
The cast of The Waltons grew up together on the series, and the children regarded one another as true brothers and sisters, a real family, and also felt a special kinship with the actors who portrayed their parents and grandparents. They are still close and have kept in touch, as they have with their real-life counterparts.
When asked how well the actors portrayed the family, Hamner answered, “Beautifully.” Referring to the children and teenagers who portrayed him and his siblings, he added, “These were professional actors. They were wonderful young people to work with, and they had a great deal of respect for the characters they were portraying. Some of the actors were in Virginia from time to time and would meet the real person they were portraying, and they would become friends. Richard Thomas portrayed the character based on me, and I could not have had a more fortunate piece of casting, because Richard was a superb actor, and he had a great fondness and respect for the John Boy character. He related to the character, and I thought he did an impeccable job. We’ve stayed friends. I don’t see him often, because he lives in New York. I see some of the other actors, once in awhile, and we keep in touch, pretty much.
“I think that, because they portrayed a family, the actors developed family-type feelings for each other. They were more like brothers and sisters than like actors going to a set. I think a lot of that had to do with a quality that Ralph Waite and Michael Learned had. These children practically grew up together. Kami Cotler, who was six when we started the series and 16 when we finished it, had grown up on that show, as the other kids did. Ralph and Michael realized that, when the show was over, there was going to be a severe separation anxiety for the kids, so they took great pains to reassure them and to let them know that their relationships would not end, even though they wouldn’t be seeing each other every day, as they did when the show was being filmed.
“Ellen Corby, who played the grandmother, on the set was more like a real grandmother than an actress. She was constantly shouting at one of the kids, ‘Watch out. You’re going to trip on that cable. Be careful. You’re going to hurt yourself.’ And Will Geer, who was the grandfather, was equally affectionate. He was a very special person, anyway. We were all heartbroken when he died.”
Hamner siblings Nancy Hamner Jamerson, Paul Hamner, Audrey Hamner Hankins, and Earl Hamner, Jr. on the front porch of their childhood home in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Hamner’s siblings, themselves, have had great affection for the series that depicted their lives, as well as for the actors who portrayed them.
The late Jim Hamner, who passed away in 2004 and who was the model for the youngest Walton son, Jim Bob, once told this writer that he enjoyed growing up with so many brothers and sisters, and he added that the family’s television counterparts were very much true to life. Even though Schuyler is still small, he noted how the series has attracted many visitors to the area and how the little village has changed. “Our cow pasture used to be right where the post office is now,” he reminisced. “That’s where we had our cow named Chance.” The musically talented Jim more than once, years ago, would play the piano at reunions of Hamner family members and Waltons cast members.
The late Marion Hamner Hawkes, who passed away in 2004 and, as the oldest Hamner daughter, was the model for Mary Ellen Walton, agreed that the small town has attracted a following. “A lot more people have come to Virginia as a result of The Waltons,” she once told this writer. “It’s wonderful.” Speaking of her childhood in Schuyler, she said, “We had a great life. We still come back whenever we can, to be together as a family.”
Audrey Hamner Hankins, the model for the middle daughter, Erin Walton, recalled snowy days from her childhood. “The snow would be so deep that they couldn’t get the buses out,” she told this writer. “Those would be the only times we could miss school, because we lived right across the street,” she laughed. “So, if they closed the school, we could stay at home, play in the snow, make hot chocolate, and do all kinds of things.” She said that, although they grew up during the Depression, they had a good life, and she fondly recalled her mother’s good cooking and special Christmas memories. When asked what the family’s first impression was of the television series her oldest brother devoted to their childhood, she said, “It was a funny feeling — it still is – but it has been a nice honor to have our family exposed to everybody. I never thought it would be anything like it is.” She spoke of the 1992 grand opening of the Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, when 6,500 visitors turned out to see Earl Hamner and his siblings and The Waltons cast and writers; the roads leading up to the mountain had to be closed because of the crowd. “It was fantastic,” she said. “It was unbelievable, to have that many people in this community.”
Hamner family members Bo Hamner (son of Cliff Hamner), Nancy Hamner Jamerson, Jim Hamner, Audrey Hamner Hankins, Diane Hamner (daughter of Cliff Hamner), and Marion Hamner Hawkes inside The Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Nancy Hamner Jamerson, the youngest Hamner daughter and the model for Elizabeth Walton, said that the idea for a television series was initially met with uncertainty. “I thought, ‘What have we done, that he would write about? We’re just an average family.’ Once we saw it, we were thrilled with it. It was exciting, and we were pleased with it all of those years. It amazes me. We knew it was a great show, but we didn’t know that so many other people would feel the same way.” She loved growing up with so many brothers and sisters. “It was great being the youngest,” she added, “because they all took care of me.” She went to school from the first through tenth grade in the building that now houses The Walton’s Mountain Museum, before she went on to Nelson County High School. “I have some great friends I grew up with and went to school with,” she said. “Some of the greatest people I’ve ever known lived here in Schuyler, and live here still.”
Another Hamner sibling, Paul, lives in New Jersey. Two other brothers, Bill and Cliff, passed away in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Bill and Paul together were the model for Ben Walton, and Cliff was the model for Jason Walton.
Cliff’s daughter, Diane, told this writer that her childhood was a very simple life, and she added that she enjoyed growing up having so many aunts and uncles. “All of the family has always been so loving and caring,” she said.
Cliff’s son, Bo, recalled the Hamner family’s calling goodnight to one another, a tradition carried over into the Walton family. “We would really do that,” he said, “even with my father and our family. I think it was just our letting each other know that we were in bed and okay. The whole nation was saying, ‘Goodnight, John Boy.’ I went to my Dad and asked, ‘Are they making fun of us?’ He said, ‘No, not at all. They’re really quite taken with it.’ That was interesting for me, something that I had taken for granted all of my life, people being so struck and moved by it.” In his childhood, Bo and his family would come to his grandparents’ house in Schuyler for holidays and family vacations. He called the home a constant in his life, and said that he had even lived in his grandparents’ house for three years. “It was a great experience,” he said. “I realize how rich my heritage is. It’s wonderful. I took for granted what some people search their whole lives for, a place to know who you are and where you’ve come from.” When he returns to Schuyler for a visit, it feels like returning home.
Earl Hamner’s boyhood home in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Home – the perfect word for Schuyler for Earl Hamner. His childhood home, built in 1925, was purchased and restored by fellow Virginian Pam Rutherford.
He recently wrote, “Home. To me, in spite of the passing of time and the fact that no Hamner still lives there, it will always be all that the word implies. It is the place that I come from. It was where, during a desperate time in our national history, my mother and father raised eight children and gave us the love and security to face an uncertain future. In memory, I go there each night. I stand beside the gate, look up to the house, and once again I hear the voices of my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, as we call goodnight to each other before we sleep.”
Schuyler, named for the town’s first Postmaster, Schuyler Walker, was a positive influence on him in his growing up years. “It was a small community where everybody knew each other, and they looked out for each other, and there was no crime,” he told this writer.
The school Hamner attended along with his brothers and sisters was just up the street across from their home.
The Hamner family home in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
The church they attended, Schuyler Baptist Church, was just down the street. The same building in which he worshiped with his family is still there and was recently restored. The current Pastor, Rev. Tom Fowler, is a close friend of his.
“I think religion had an effect on me,” Hamner said. “We were very strict Baptists, and we went to church every Sunday and went to prayer meeting on Sunday night. I am a very religious person, but I can be close to God out in the woods, on a lake, or on a river. I’m very close to nature. I love the natural world.
“Religion was a great comfort, a refuge, a sustaining force. There were four churches in that little town – I think 700 people and four churches. So, no wonder we were good.
“I love the King James Version of the Bible,” he added. “The writing itself is so rich and beautiful. And it tells stories. But the writing itself is majestic.”
Schuyler Baptist Church. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Schuyler Baptist Church. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
In A Decade of The Waltons, a special retrospective of the series that aired in 1980, Hamner spoke these words of his hometown: “My people were drawn to these mountains and peaceful valleys when the country was young. They settled here, cleared the land, and planted their crops along the winding Rockfish River. Little has changed down through the years, and, whenever I return to Virginia, I go back in time to another life, the life I led as a boy, and I’m filled with a strong exultation. I’m home again.”
The location was inspiring for a young boy who wanted to be a writer and who loved to read.
Hamner told this writer that he loved to read everything he could when he was growing up. “We had a little library,” he said. “One of the church ladies sent out letters to churches around the country and asked them to send books, and they did, and so we developed a little library there. It had every kind of book in the world, and I just read straight through everything.”
He still can picture, in his mind, a younger version of himself, seated at a desk at his bedroom window. The tall, thin, red-headed boy, yearning to be a writer, keeps a journal of his thoughts and observations and feelings.
Earl Hamner’s former bedroom inside the restored Hamner family home in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
In the movie The Homecoming, John Boy confesses to his mother his longings to be a writer, as she discovers his tablet in which he had secretly written. “You know what’s in that tablet, Mama? All my secret thoughts, how I feel and what I think about, what it’s like late at night to hear a whippoorwill call and hear its mate call back, the rumbling of the midnight train crossing the trestle at Rockfish, or just watching the water go behind the creek and knowing someday it’ll reach the ocean, wondering if I’ll ever see an ocean and what a wonder that would be….Things stay in my mind, Mama. I can’t forget anything…..I can’t rest or sleep or anything till I just rush off up here and write it down in that tablet.”
In the last regular episode of the series, entitled “The Revel,” John Boy returns to Walton’s Mountain for inspiration to write, before going back to New York. In the last moments of the episode, Hamner’s voice is heard: “I hope that you’ll remember this house as I do. The mystical blue ridges that stretch beyond it into infinity, the sound of warm voices drifting out upon the night air, a family waiting, and a light in the window. Goodnight.”
Hamner recalled that, if the children had been gone at night, a light in the window would welcome them home.
He recently wrote, “In memory, I say goodnight to that house. I hear the slap of a screen door closing for the night. Inside, the children finish their homework and prepare for bed. After the last light is out, they call goodnight to each other. Three thousand miles and seventy years away, I still hear those sweet voices.”
The Hamner family home in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
“I’ve really had three families,” Hamner told this writer. “I’ve had the family I was born into, my television family, and the family I made with my wife.”
Hamner met his wife in 1954 while he was working at NBC as a radio writer. “I was planning to make enough money to go back to Paris, where I had been during World War II, and to stay there and never get married,” he said. “I was just going to write my books, and they would be my ‘wife and children.’ Then, one night, I left my office, and I ran into a friend in a restaurant, and she said, ‘Earl, I’d like for you to meet my roommate, Jane Martin.’ I looked at her, and I fell in love. After we talked for a moment, I went on to the next table, where I was meeting some people, and I said, ‘I’ve just met the girl I’m going to marry.’ That was in March, and we were married in October.”
Their son, Scott, who wrote for The Waltons, including the final episode, is currently a writer for The Young and the Restless. “He’s quite a good writer,” said Hamner. Their daughter, Caroline, is a family therapist. “My daughter doesn’t write professionally,” he said, “but she’s a very good writer.”
The Hamners’ beloved dog, Peaches, shares their home.
Earl Hamner takes great care for his 50 bonsai trees, which he calls an interesting hobby. “I love my trees,” he said. “I’ve even been to Japan to see some of the trees there.”
Another pastime is fishing in the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia.
Hamner has written several books: Generous Women; The Avocado Drive Zoo; The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner; Good Night, John Boy; Lassie, A Christmas Story; The Homecoming; You Can’t Get There From Here; Murder in Tinseltown; Spencer’s Mountain; and Fifty Roads to Town. Details and ordering information may be found on his official website, www.EarlHamner.com. For his website, he also writes a blog, entitled, “You, Me, and the Lamp Post.”
He has been honored with a theater named for him in his home county. The Hamner Theater, located in Afton, Virginia, is a non-profit project of The Rockfish Valley Community Center and is dedicated to Nelson County’s beloved native son. Information about the theater may be found at the official website, www.TheHamnerTheater.com.
He recently has written short stories. “I wrote several of the original Twilight Zone scripts,” he said. “Rod Serling was a friend. So many of the magazines are looking for Twilight Zone type stories. I love the form. It’s a very original kind of writing, going back to Edgar Allan Poe, that kind of fantasy. It’s a rewarding kind of writing, and also it’s sort of a whole different career for me, because I was a radio writer for awhile, and then I was a novelist for awhile, and then I was a television writer for while, and now I’m a short story writer. I’m enjoying it.”
Hamner had entered the University of Richmond on a scholarship, but left when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. After returning from the war, he entered the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a major in broadcasting in June, 1948. He was immediately hired full-time by Cincinnati radio station WLW, where he had worked part-time as a student. He would make an acquaintance that would form a lifelong friendship in fellow writer Rod Serling, when both won prizes for radio scripts they entered in a contest. Serling would succeed Hamner at his job when Hamner took time off to write a novel.
Hamner wrote for the radio program “Biography in Sound” for NBC in New York. Those whom he interviewed included Eleanor Roosevelt and Thomas Wolfe’s sister, Mable Wolfe Wheaton. “We would interview people and get them to tell stories about people they knew,” he told this writer. “I did one on Thomas Wolfe, who was one of my great literary heroes. I was so enchanted with Wolfe for years that I practically talked like he wrote – beautiful writing, just glorious. I collected interviews with different people who had known Wolfe. It was interesting to me to actually meet the people. I met one of his sisters, one of his editors at Scribner’s, and a friend who had known him in college. It was more fun than work. And, of course, to meet Eleanor Roosevelt was a great privilege. I met many good, well known people, who are just like the rest of us when you get to know them.”
He would later write scripts for The Twilight Zone television series, create the movie Palm Springs Weekend, write the film adaptation of the book Where the Lilies Bloom by Bill and Vera Cleaver, write the film script for the children’s book Heidi by Johanna Spyri, and write the animated film Charlotte’s Web from the book by E.B. White.
“That was such a pleasure to write,” Hamner told this writer. “I had such respect for E.B. White as a writer. I spent a lot of time in New York, and E.B. White used to write a lot of stuff for The New Yorker magazine, and, although I never met him, I felt like I knew him from his essays in The New Yorker. I think several writers were submitted for his consideration, and I interviewed for the job and got it and just loved it. When you adapt something, you’re writing a film, but you still have a responsibility to keep the integrity of what the original writer wrote, and that’s what I tried to do with Charlotte’s Web, to keep the meaning of his words, to keep the lessons he wrote — of regeneration, of responsibility, of respect, and of love. They were beautifully said things. A lot of people think of Charlotte’s Web as a children’s book, but it’s as much for adults as it is for children.”
He once stated that writing is an emotional experience for him, and explained that, while writing the script for Charlotte’s Web, he answered a telephone call, and the caller noticed that he sounded ‘choked up.’ Hamner answered, “A spider just died.”
After The Waltons, Hamner created the television series Falcon Crest.
With all of his accomplishments, he is highly treasured by fans of The Waltons, for which he received The Christopher Award, the purpose of which is to honor media that “affirms the highest values of the human spirit,” and the George Foster Peabody Award, which, he said, is “the highest honor that can be bestowed in journalism.” He was also voted Virginian of the Year by the Virginia Press Association and received an honorary degree from the University of Richmond.
Hamner always knew that he wanted to be a writer, and he has been a published writer since his poem entitled, “My Dog,” was printed when he was the age of six. “I wrote a poem when I was six years old,” he said. “My mother sent it to the children’s page of The Richmond Times Dispatch, and they published it. I’ve always said I was a writer from the time I was six.”
What he enjoys most about being a writer is the ability to communicate with people. “I like the fact that I’m entertaining people,” he said. “I hope that, in my work, I’m helping people sustain their lives, and I’m hoping that I can help them discover things about life, about the world, about how people live. And it’s just a great joy in the words getting on paper and seeing what you’ve written. It’s a lot of fun when you see it published as a book or as a magazine article or as a short story. It’s very gratifying.”
As for advice for writers he would offer? “I would say the most important thing is to have confidence in yourself, because that’s the important thing if you want to be a writer,” he said. “Don’t say, ‘I want to be a writer.’ Say, ‘I am a writer.’ And write every day, so that you’re in the habit of writing. And have a place where you enjoy being and where you can have some privacy and let your thoughts flow. And be persistent – don’t give up. That’s a good idea in every profession, but I think especially in writing, because often you get a good many rejections before you finally become accepted.”
Hamner offered advice to graduating students at The University of Cincinnati in June, 2008, when he returned to his alma mater to be presented an honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts degree and to deliver the commencement address. “…..What has inspired my work has always been the family and neighbors I grew up with back in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. They were decent, God-fearing, patriotic people. Like most Appalachian folk, they were frugal, proud, and self-reliant. To write about such people, it was inevitable that such stories deal with love and honor, pity and pride, compassion and sacrifice. And so much of my writing became a celebration of those traditional American values. Some would have us believe that these values no longer have meaning, that they are quaint, outmoded relics of an older time. I believe they are more alive and well than our films and television and newspapers would have us believe……I do ask you to keep those traditional values in a quiet place in your heart, and remember that they have sustained us as a country and a people for over 200 years…..I encourage you to keep creating meaning for television. Only from the heart can come universal truths.”
He told this writer what he thinks television is capable of doing and being: “I think television is a means for elevating people, for teaching them, for really being meaningful in people’s lives, instead of just being light-hearted entertainment.”
Although The Waltons television series went off the air in 1981, nothing has compromised its loyal following. Six special television movies aired from 1982 to 1997, and repeat episodes from the nine seasons of the original series have a home on cable television.
“People didn’t think the series would be a success in the beginning,” said Hamner, who also served as the show’s Executive Producer. When The Waltons debuted, he would never have believed it would have sustained the following it has had all of these years. “You never think that of a television show, because most last only four or five episodes. The thought of watching a poor family in Virginia struggling through the Depression – it just wasn’t the kind of thing they made television shows out of. But we surprised everybody. It’s still being played all around the world.”
When asked if any particular episodes are among his favorites, Hamner answered, “I must say I loved every one of them, but some of the early ones, I thought, were just remarkable. We did one on book burning. We did another one where we dealt with hatred and prejudice, where a Jewish family came to Walton’s Mountain, and they had trouble assimilating, but they were able to become regular citizens.
“I guess the one that I was most affected by was when Richard Thomas left the series at the end of the fifth season. He had signed a contract for five years, and his five years were up, and he wanted to do other things. He’s that kind of actor who is always wanting to experiment and enlarge his capabilities. In the show, the story was that he was going to New York.”
In that episode, entitled, “The Achievement,” which aired in March, 1977, John Boy travels to New York City to inquire from a publishing house about the manuscript he sent for his first novel. The publishing house accepts his manuscript, and asks him to write a second novel. In the final scenes of the episode, as John Boy, his parents, and his grandfather are sitting on the front porch, and John Boy speaks excitedly about his visit to New York, the family knows that he is contemplating leaving Walton’s Mountain. “It’s the same sky looking down on Times Square, but it seems like a whole different world to me,” John Boy says. “Well, how do you young folks feel about your firstborn flying the coop?” the grandfather asks, to which the father replies, “I don’t think we could get him to stay, Pa, even if we tried.” The mother, teary-eyed, steps inside, saying, “I guess I’d better get busy darning your socks.” Before going into the house, the grandfather places a hand on John Boy’s shoulder and says, “Well, don’t forget your way home, son.” “I never will,” John Boy replies. His father hugs him, and they both step to the edge of the porch, looking up toward the evening sky, then John Boy steps out into the yard. As the father steps inside, and, with all of the other family members inside, the voice of narrator Earl Hamner is heard: “I did leave Walton’s Mountain to live and work in New York City. I wrote more novels and raised a family of my own. Today, we live in California, but, no matter where I am, the call of a night bird, the rumble of a train crossing a trestle, the scent of crab apple, the lowing of a sleepy cow can call me home again. In memory, I stand before that small, white house, and I can still hear those sweet voices.” John Boy turns back toward the house to hear each family member calling “goodnight” to one another and to him. In a moment of sentimental reflection, John Boy says, “Goodnight, everybody. I love you.”
“It was a very moving piece for me, because I remembered when I left my Virginia home to go to New York,” said Hamner. “Of course, it didn’t happen exactly that way, but the emotions were very much the same.”
The Waltons brings back memories of a simpler way of life. A wholesome television series that entertained viewers with good stories yet also reinforced traditional values and endeared itself as a part of Americana, the Emmy Award-winning series won something even more valuable than accolades – it won the heart of a nation.
While discussing the impact The Waltons has had on American life, Earl Hamner spoke of individual lives influenced by the show. “One young woman called me once to say that she had run away from home, she had no direction in her life, and she was estranged from her family,” he said. “And then she had seen an episode of The Waltons, and it made her feel homesick, and she went back home and changed her life. Those kinds of stories are very inspiring to me.”
In another, simple yet meaningful way, The Waltons has earned a place in American life. In the episode entitled, “The Heritage,” John Boy tells his parents, “We’ve had this place all our lives, and we have a history here that has made us what we are. And we have memories of this place that are so firmly planted in our minds we’ll never forget them. Every breath we’ve ever taken is still somewhere in this house…….It’s the sounds of this house that I’ll never forget, especially that one moment, when we’re all in bed, we’re all safe, we’re all together, just before we go to sleep, when we say goodnight to each other here.”
“We really did that,” Hamner told this writer. “Richard Thomas once visited my house, which is a very modest, little house in Nelson County, Virginia, and, when he got back from visiting there, he said, ‘I always wondered how you guys could be able to call goodnight to each other and be heard, but it’s such a little house. Of course, you could.’
“A lot of families say goodnight to each other the way we used to,” added Hamner. “That’s been one of the most remarkable things about that series. So many families have taken it up as a ritual, that they say goodnight before going to bed. I hear that so often of people who love the series. And I think it’s nice that everybody goes to sleep with a good feeling towards each other.”
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Hamner answered, “As a good husband, as a good father, and as a good citizen who loved his family and his country.”
Earl Hamner will also be long remembered for his contributions to the art of storytelling, for his contributions toward the betterment of mankind in uplifting traditional values, and for creating for many a sense of home.
And, as the sun sets over the mountain homeplace, one can nearly hear, through a light breeze blowing through the trees, a faint whisper from the past: “Goodnight.”