An Interview with Mary McDonough

Returning to Walton's Mountain: Reminiscing with Mary McDonough

Written by Karen Brewer

Mary McDonough, who portrayed Erin on The Waltons television series, stands on the front porch of Earl Hamner’s childhood home in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

The Waltons was an incredible journey, and he created the show that I feel very lucky to be a part of.”

Mary McDonough spoke fond words of Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of The Waltons television series, when she sat down for an interview with this writer inside Hamner’s boyhood home in Schuyler, Virginia. In the series, which debuted in 1972 following the December, 1971 television movie The Homecoming, McDonough portrayed the character of Erin, based on Hamner’s sister Audrey, one of his seven siblings.

“He made it great,” McDonough said of the show, “and I got to go along for the ride.

“He is an inspiration,” she said of the man she affectionately calls ‘Uncle Earl.’ “He’s been an inspiration for me in writing, and he’s been incredibly supportive about my book.”

Hamner wrote the foreword for McDonough’s book, Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton. “When I asked him to write the foreword, he said he wouldn’t write it if he didn’t like the book,” she said. “So, I was very nervous. I sent him the book, and I was waiting, on ‘pins and needles’, to hear if he liked it, and, of course, he loved it, and he wrote a beautiful foreword, so I was very, very blessed.”

In his foreword, Hamner’s words included the following:

“Mary Beth was a pretty little girl of ten when she was first cast…Mary Beth was to play Erin, a character based on my sister Audrey. I was especially pleased by the casting, because, like Audrey, Mary Beth was very beautiful, and had a winning smile. I saw some of Audrey in Mary Beth – also a middle child – with an outgoing, accepting, happy disposition…

“When I first read Mary’s manuscript, I was struck by the honesty with which she describes her early experiences. It is a revealing story that took courage and strength to tell. It is a story of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity at its finest.”

In her book, McDonough wrote of Hamner and his hometown:

“There would be no Walton’s Mountain or Walton family without its creator, Earl Hamner, Jr. The mountain grew from Earl’s own memories of his family living through the Depression in Schuyler, Virginia.

“His voice has a melody of its own, as heard in his soft, Southern lilt narrating the show’s opening and closing in each episode. He is a gentle and kind man. He always has been. From my first experience of meeting him for The Homecoming to today, he has always been as supportive and encouraging as the day I met him.

“We have all traveled to Schuyler to see where he was born and the real home of the Hamners. I love going there in the fall, my favorite time of year. There’s something so special about his family and that town. It’s no wonder thousands of visitors are drawn there every year. One gets a sense of the quality of the people and how Earl’s experiences growing up there made the show so special.

“There is an Erin because of Earl and his sister Audrey, for which I am grateful. I would not be writing this book if not for his brilliant example of sharing a memory, a story, and a family’s love. He is the real John-Boy, and a big brother to us all. “

When asked how it felt to be returning to the village of Schuyler, where the Walton (Hamner) story all began, and to be in Hamner’s childhood home, which was restored by Pam Rutherford, McDonough told this writer, “I love coming to Schuyler. I love Schuyler. They’ve done such a great job in restoring the home and making it so Walton-like. I have very fond memories of, after all of the Walton reunions, sitting on the porch with ‘Uncle Jim’ Hamner, after having signed hundreds and hundreds of autographs all day. I loved sitting out on that porch and relaxing and talking to him. It was great.”

The reunions, with Waltons cast members and Hamner family members, began in the 1990’s, after The Waltons Mountain Museum, just up the road from the Hamner home and located inside the former Schuyler Elementary School, was dedicated in 1992.

Mary and Audrey (the two Erins) had only ‘met’ via a television screen in 1980’s A Decade of the Waltons, and McDonough actually first met her character’s real-life counterpart when McDonough was hosting, for Entertainment Tonight, a segment on a Waltons reunion. “That was the first time I actually met Audrey, face to face,” she said. The two have grown to know each other well through the years.

In this 1999 photo, Mary and her late mother, Betty McDonough, are pictured with Betty’s wedding dress, which Mary wore as Erin in a Waltons reunion movie, A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain (1982).  (Photography by Karen Brewer)

McDonough’s late mother, Betty, sometimes accompanied her to reunions. In 1999, she donated to the museum her own wedding dress, which Mary, as Erin, had also worn, in a Waltons reunion movie, A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain (1982). The dress was on display for several years. “My Mom loved it here,” McDonough said. “It was great to have her here, because she loved the show, and she loved being affiliated with it and had such fond memories. And all of the kids and our Moms hanging out together was a lot of fun.”

This day was also a reunion, as McDonough returned to the hills of Virginia upon the release of her book. That afternoon, she enjoyed greeting at a book-signing at The Waltons Mountain Country Store, within walking distance of the Hamner home.

McDonough said that “The Burnout” is her favorite Walton episode. “There are ones that are more poignant to me, but I can’t say they are my favorite,” she said. “The one where GW dies is an important one, but it’s sad, so it’s not a favorite. But more important and poignant ones are that episode, the episode when Grandma came home from having a stroke, and when Will (Grandpa) died, and we said goodbye to him on the mountain – all of those. And I liked doing “The Wager” with Judy.”

During the time of the reunions, years after The Waltons had ceased production, the cast reunited for a Christmas album on CD, “A Walton Christmas: Together Again,” produced by Jon Walmsley with the concept by McDonough and Bruce Burch. “I had a friend in Nashville, in the record business, who said, ‘Have you guys ever done a Christmas CD?’ she explained. When he asked her if she would like to produce one, she answered, “I’m not a music producer, but Jon Walmsley could do it.” “It was really fun,” she said. “I kind of corralled everybody together and then handed it over to Jon to produce the music element of it. It was really fun to do.”

On October 18, 2010, a special ‘reunion’ of cast members was produced by McDonough and filmed for the Inspiration Network, which, along with the Hallmark Channel and the Gospel Music Channel, is airing Waltons episodes. “INSP had contacted us about doing a promotion,” she said, “and then I got in contact with them about doing a national special and got everybody together again. It was fun. It was great to look back and to have the pieces on Will and Ellen, to pay tribute to them. It was really good and fun, and I’m planning to produce more for them, as well.”

While reuniting for the reunion special, cast members discussed among themselves the idea of filming one more Waltons movie, “to kind of tie up all of the loose ends,” she said. “Everybody thought it was a great idea. Earl said, ‘I think we should do it. I think it’s a great idea. If I write it, then, Mary Beth, you’ll have to get it produced.’ We haven’t done anything with it officially, but you never know. There is a huge following. It’s on three networks, on every day, and people can’t get enough of it. So, it might be time to do another reunion (movie).”

McDonough’s life involves much more than having portrayed the character of Erin on The Waltons, and her book includes the many facets of her life’s journey, as she writes of her family, her fellow cast members, who are like family, and her activism in educating the public on the dangers of unsafe breast implants, which caused her Lupus. “It’s so important to speak out,” she told this writer, “because so many people don’t know much about it. I felt like giving a voice to those who didn’t have a voice. It was a good thing to do, having been diagnosed myself.”

“I am not just one element of my life,” she wrote. “So, with this book, you get many facets of the mosaic that is my life. I have been a child performer, former child performer, nonprofit worker, filmmaker, wife, mother, blogger, activist, actress, writer, acting teacher, and producer. I found healing in communication and shared experiences, and decided I wanted to inspire others through the terrain of their own mountains and molehills, so I became a public speaker and workshop leader. As a certified life coach, I help people realize their true potential.”

The Waltons remains a long-lived, time-honored tradition celebrating family, home, and traditional values, but, for the cast, it also represents a significant part of their lives in which they grew to love one another as family. During a book-signing in California, McDonough’s Walton family was present, showing their support. “Ralph drove up from Palm Springs, and Michael was there, and the ‘kids’ were there,” she said. “Richard was in New York, but everybody was so supportive. It was just like having your family at a reunion.”

As McDonough wrote in her book: “The caring sense of community, family, and support for each other is something we all share, and it comes from the feelings Earl created from that mountain and that live in us still. Even though we stopped shooting over thirty years ago, The Waltons continues to touch my life – and the world’s heart – daily.”

Mary McDonough in the kitchen of the Hamner home. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Mary at the piano inside the Hamner home. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Mary with the radio inside the Hamner home. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Mary in the girls’ room of the Hamner home. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Mary in the girls’ room of the Hamner family home. (Photography by Karen Brewer)

Mary in the girls’ room of the Hamner family home in Schuyler. (Photography  by Karen Brewer)

The Hamner family home in Schuyler, Virginia. (Photography by Karen Brewer)