Earl Hamner Jr. passed away last week at 92. For those who don’t recognize the name, he was the real life John Boy of The Waltons. He was a gentleman of the old school. He had so many success stories in his stack of accomplishments that he could have become egotistical or hardened by fame. He surely was not that. I know because he made room in his busy world for a teacher and her students in Wallins Creek, Kentucky to work on a book project with him and remained my friend until he passed.
Many people may not realize he had strong ties with Harlan County. As a young man on his first radio show, he devoted his topic to Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County. On his last visit to Harlan several years ago, he was waiting for George and Connie Brosi to attend a memorial service for one of their friends in the Pine Mountain Chapel. Earl didn’t want to intrude on the ceremony, so he had stayed behind at Laurel House. After a while, I got concerned about him being alone and wondered if he had found a place to sit and have coffee or even take a nap. (He was in his 80s at the time.)
I didn’t find him sitting quietly. He had walked around the entire campus on his own looking at buildings, flowers, streams and meeting people who were out that day. He fell in love with the Pine Mountain Settlement School campus. I think he was amused that I came to check on him, but also pleased. We had a lovely conversation while we waited for George and Connie to come back and collect him, although short. I was mesmerized by the voice I use to hear weekly as the narrator at the beginning and end of each Walton episode. I had always loved the John Boy character and his passion for writing.
He cared deeply about his part of the country and said that Harlan County was in many ways like his home in Schuyler, Virginia where he grew up. Even though he had lived in New York City, and last resided just outside of Hollywood, California, the mountains and mountain people were still in his heart. He still admired the goodness of mountain people, the value of family and the bonds of friendship.
We began to communicate by phone, letter and computer. My students sent him gifts. He sent them books and encouraged them to be readers and writers. One they made a leaf print sheet for him in the fall and his family used it as a table cloth for their Thanksgiving meal. At other times they sent him stories and drawings.
He decided he would like them to illustrate a book for him, ODETTE, the Goose of Toulouse. In their spare time my students produced hundreds of line drawings to send him. It was great fun. He complimented them on their work and assured them his choices were difficult. We all waited anxiously to see whose drawings had been chosen for the project.
Mr. Hamner was an incredible encourager. He tried to always give of his best and encouraged others to do the same. In his 80s he still had an immediate plan, a one year plan, a five year plan and a 10 year plan in place. He told me once after he first began to have health issues that he had just assumed he’d live forever because he still had so many things he wanted to accomplish.
He was still deeply in love with his wife Jane, rejoiced in the successes of his children and loved life. His contributions to this world were many and he will be sorely missed.
In his own familiar words, “Good night, John Boy.”
Reach Judith Victoria Hensley at [email protected] or on Facebook. Check out her blog: One Step Beyond the Door.