The Home Coming
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by Reese J. Whitley
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Strange—how present day events, places, people sometimes collide to bring back memories
of, times, things, or people you thought you probably would never see, hear, or maybe even think of again.
Many of you will remember the popular and long running 1960s-70s TV show called THE WALTONS. It centered around the mythical Walton
family, with a leading character named ‘John Boy’ Walton. The Walton family included the parents, grandparents, and numerous siblings.
They were a close family, of modest means, in a rural area, during the 1930s-40s. It made stars of Ralph Waite, Michael Learned, and
Richard Thomas. You can still see Richard Thomas now and then, usually in a TV show or series.
THE WALTONS TV show was written by Earl Hamner, based on his own real-life family, when they lived in the actual rural town of Schuyler,
Va. Schuyler is 8-9 miles off Rt. 29, approximately 15 miles from the Nelson County seat of Lovingston (a Court House, a high school,
a small Chevvy dealership, a grocery store, and a dozen homes—in the 1940s) and 30 miles from Charlottesville—home to the University
of Virginia. Hamner, with the success of THE WALTONS, became a very successful play/screen writer—located around Burbank, Calif. He
recently died last year, at 92 years of age.
My first visit to Schuyler was around 1968-69—close
to the time when THE WALTONS TV show was being launched. I was working a house-fire claim for an insurance company. After slowly driving
through a narrow, winding, hilly road for 20 minutes—Schuyler appeared before me. I thought I had been caught up in a ‘time warp’,
thrown back into the southwest Virginia coal mining town (250 miles away) I once called home. Just as with the ‘company’ town of my
childhood, the houses of Schuyler were ‘company houses’—built and owned by the Schuyler Slate Co. The houses were all pretty much
the same design—modest, one and two story models, painted white, close to each other, and built in rings around the natural ‘bowl’
contour of the steep hills on which the town was built. There were 30-35 houses, centered around the Slate Co.’s ‘company store’,
a company office, a church, and the slate (rock) quarry off the edge of Schuyler. Schuyler almost looked like a small town built in
an amphitheater setting.
In the March 2017 there was a reunion, in Schuyler, of the cast
of actors/actresses who had roles in the long running THE WALTONS TV shows. It was fitting that Schuyler be the site of the reunion—since
it was the setting of the show, and some of the shows’ scenes were actually filmed there. Many of the of the show’s original cast
is still alive—if somewhat aged by now. Their journey back here, most from homes in states far away, was a tribute to the feelings,
closeness and respect the cast had for Hamner, for Schuyler, for each other, and the warm, wonderful TV shows they produced for so
many years in the 60s & 70s.
Also in Schuyler for the reunion was Jimmy Fortune, singer/musician/song
writer. You may remember Jimmy—the tenor in the legendary STATLER BROTHERS quartet. The Statler Brothers, as a singing group, have
retired. Jimmy still works a little, making appearances here and there, being accompanied by other musicians. While the Statler Brothers
were still active musicians, Jimmy wrote some of the songs they sang. One song Jimmy wrote, called ELIZABETH, and sung by the Statler
Brothers made it all the way to the #1 song in the music world ratings.
What is less known
about the song is Jimmy’s source of inspiration for writing ELIZABETH. In the THE WALTONS, one of the younger siblings was called
Elizabeth. Her character role was based on Hamner’s younger sister. Jimmy Fortune was so impressed with the character of Elizabeth
on the TV show, he wrote the words and music for the song he called ELIZABETH. It became such a big hit the Statler brother often
sang it in their performances—and Jimmy still sings the song in some of his present day solo performances. It is unknown how many,
if any, of the THE WALTONS cast (or even Hamner himself) realized the #1 song of ELIZABETH was inspired by one of the characters on
THE WALTONS TV show.
That uncertainty was dispelled during the recent WALTONS cast reunion
at Schuyler. The character of Elizabeth was portrayed in the WALTONS TV show by a young actress named Kami Kotler. When the WALTONS
TV show closed, after years on TV, Kami Kotler had ‘grown up’. She cut back her acting career, went to college in California, earned
a degree in English, Social Studies, and a certificate to teach. She decided she wanted to spend some time teaching in a rural setting.
She came all the way from California back to Nelson County—where the Schuyler setting for the WALTONS TV was located—and taught in
the local high school for a number of years. She eventually went back to California, had children, and is now involved in educational
pursuits in Charter schools in California.
Kami Kotler was one of the cast who came back
to Schuyler for the Walton Reunion. She was among those present when Jimmy Fortune took the stage to perform at the reunion. Unknown
to her before-hand, Jimmy personally sang ELIZABETH to her. He told her, and the audience, he never dreamed—when he wrote that song—that
it would be a #1 best seller, or that he would, one day, get the opportunity to sing it to the person who was his inspiration for
the song. In fact, Fortune (and some of the Statler Bros) calls ‘home’ a beautiful valley just on the other side of Afton Mtn (part
of the famed Blue Ridge Mtns) not more than an hour’s drive from Schuyler.
ability to write songs and sing; Miss Kotler’s change of careers from acting to teaching; improbable rural setting for the home of
a highly successful TV playwright called Earl Hamner; these people/things/events colliding across the last 70-80 years--. It gave
me pause to reflect once more on the similarities to my own ‘back home’ setting in the 30s-40s-50s.
My mother was a school teacher—her favorite subject was English—Miss Kotler’s subject; my mother’s first career pursuit was nursing—which
she gave up for something she loved more—teaching—similar to Miss Kotler’s career path change; Jimmy was a gifted musician/singer/song
writer; in the mountains of southwest Virginia where I grew up, it seemed every 5th person I knew came into this world with a natural
ability to play a guitar/fiddle/banjo/mandolin—and the singing voice of a tenor.
Hamner was a natural writer. He had the gift of telling a good story. Had he been raised in mountains of rural southwest Virginia,
instead of Schuyler, my childhood home may very well have been the setting of his successful TV show.