Nelson County, Virginia
By Woody Greenberg
Nelson County’s most famous native son, my friend Earl Hamner Jr., turns 86 on July 10, but there is plenty of the mischievous youngster in him. When I spoke to him recently by phone, and asked him what he was up to, he asked if I had been on his new web site yet. “Not recently,” I replied.
“I have a blog,” he said enthusiastically. I turned on my computer and read:
“Waking in the morning, if one is so fortunate, can be the most challenging part of the day. Just getting out of bed can be dangerous. First, you really ought to be able to see. You feel about on the bedside table for your glasses. In doing so you knock over a bottle of aspirin, the alarm clock and the table lamp. Eventually the glasses turn up on page thirty-seven of “How To Improve Your Memory,” the book you were reading when you fell asleep.”
That’s Earl. The renowned writer has a wonderful sense of humor, and it’s fully on display on earlhamner.com. Just as “The Waltons” was a glimmer of family-oriented dramatic entertainment in what had become a television “wasteland” of game shows, violence and situation comedies, earlhamner.com is an island of loving reminiscence and humor in a turbulent ocean of digital information.
But that’s not all he’s up to. “It’s the 50th anniversary of ‘Twilight Zone’ and several magazines are looking for ‘Twilight Zone’- type stories, so I’m in the short story business,” he said, adding that two anthologies, one published by Rod Serling’s widow, have each included one of his earlier “Twilight Zone” stories. In all, eight “Twilight Zone” episodes were written by Earl.
But back to the web site. It contains information about Earl’s four novels, numerous teleplays, movie screenplays and three non-fiction books that are memoirs. The website itself is a wide ranging look at his life’s work.
On the home page he writes: “When I was growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression, we always had friends and neighbors stopping by. My mother or father would meet them at the door and say: ‘Come on in and sit till bedtime!’ Please do that. Come on in to my website and stay as long as you like.”
It’s worth a stay. In recent years, Nelson County has produced no one who has had as far-reaching impact on the United States and the world as Earl Hamner Jr., a native of Schuyler, who created the television series “The Waltons.” The website reminds you that there’s more to Earl Hamner than John-Boy and his family living through The Great Depression and World War II.
Before the success of “The Waltons,” his literary and motion picture work had already shoved him into a select pantheon of artists who influence our culture. The film “Spencer’s Mountain,” based on his book of the same name, and the basis for the later television series, broke attendance records at New York’s Radio City Music Hall when it opened.
Later, his television film “The Homecoming,” the pilot film for “The Waltons” series, provided a template for shows like “Little House on the Prairie” and other efforts to tap into the “family market.” Earl Hamner took real-life family situations, found the human drama in them, added healthy doses of virtues like loyalty, love of family, and a sense of adventure, to make “The Waltons” into one of television’s true classics. It is still shown in many foreign countries, and pilgrims from all over the world have visited his hometown Schuyler.
Indeed, the latest blog entry on the website provides a guide to Schuyler, for which Earl Hamner has never lost his love. He weaves his descriptions of his hometown with passages from his four novels and numerous teleplays that rely on real incidents from his life.
About his old home place, now being lovingly restored by Pam Rutherford, he writes:
“If you had looked through the kitchen window when I was still a boy you would have seen the family at breakfast. They were seated at a table nine feet long. Clay had built it himself and it was flanked on either side by wooden benches. There were eight children in all. Each one had red hair, but on each head the shade of red was different. Each of them was small of bone and lean. Some of them were freckled and some were not and some had the brown eyes of their father and some had their mother’s green eyes, but on each of them there was some stamp of grace of build and movement, and it was this that Clay voiced when he said, as he often did, “Every one of my babies is a thoroughbred. You ever in your life see anything so pretty?” Olivia looked up from the frying pan where she was frying eggs to each individual’s liking, and said, “If I had my way my children would never grow up. I’d just keep them little for the rest of their lives.” From “Spencer’s Mountain.”
“Olivia” is, of course, based on Earl’s mother Doris. I actually got to know Mrs. Hamner before I met Earl. In the late 70s, Nelson County High School had named its journalism honor society for Earl, and she was invited each spring to the induction ceremony, as was I in my capacity as editor of the local newspaper. By that time “The Waltons” had been on the air for several years and was regularly generating ratings as one of the most popular TV shows on the air. We sat in the band room outside of the old auditorium waiting for the ceremony to begin and she told me, “‘The Waltons’ is the only TV show where a person writes about his own family…I don’t reckon a closer family has ever been in this world…A Hollywood writer told me ‘there’s not but one real gentleman left in Hollywood, and that’s your son.’ “
Mrs. Hamner also told me about the hundreds of “Waltons” fans who were finding their way to Schuyler to see where the “real” family had lived. She said Earl provided her with “tea money” since she invited many of them in for tea. Hospitality was one of her most prominent character traits.
That conversation, by the way, was the genesis of the idea for The Waltons Mountain Museum, although it would be at least ten years before the old Schuyler Elementary School would be closed and the museum and community center could be established.
And the real gentleman? Well, he says he still has “more ideas than the time to write them.”
Let’s hope not. Happy Birthday Dear Earl.
To read Earl’s blog head on over to: www.earlhamner.com