How I Became Friends With The Late Earl Hamner, Jr – Creator Of The Waltons

The late Earl Hamner, Jr with me and Yvette at our home back in Greenfield, Virginia in North Nelson County. He and his late sister Audrey had stopped by for a visit on this day back in the summer of 2006.

Nelson County, Virginia

Back in 2005 when we started a printed magazine here in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, Earl Hamner was in his early 80s and very much alive. A local director, Peter Coy, was in the process of establishing a theater here in his home county. It would be called the Earl Hamner Theater.

Peter Coy, Director/Founder of The Hamner Theater back in July 2005. He’s standing in what would become a theater in honor of Earl Hamner, Jr.

The inaugural cast and crew of The Homecoming on stage at The Hamner Theater. It was one of the first productions put on after the its completion in 2005-2006. Several other productions of the pilot that inspired The Waltons was put on there in the coming years.

 

Earl meeting our son Adam for the very first time back in November 2009 when he was back east here in Nelson at a book signing inside The Hamner Theater.

 

Earl (right) greets the late Paul Saunders and his wife Tatum (left) during a book signing at The Hamner Theater. Saunders wrote The Heartbeats Of Nelson over a decade ago before his death. The two were discussing the various books they’d written over time. November 2009.

Today The Hamner Theater is no longer located in the old community center in Nelson, but its vision is very much alive. Boomie Pedersen (founding, artistic, managing director) continues the theater with more of a fluid variety reaching beyond one location based in Nelson.

For those of you that don’t know who Earl Hamner was, he was best known for the television series he founded, The Waltons. It was a hit series about a depression era family here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was loosely based on his childhood growing up in Schuyler, Virginia. A tiny community in Northeastern Nelson County, Virginia near the Albemarle County line.

Since our magazine had just started, getting an interview with Nelson’s most notable native would be a big get! I had no idea that interview would turn into a magical friendship with this man who was a national, no, international treasure.

When Peter Coy above mentioned I should call Earl and talk to him by phone I said, “How?” He said here’s his cell number call him, he’ll call you back. I thought surely this man who was so famous, writing and founding Falcon Crest, the TV series, as well as writing an adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, and writing several Twilight Zone episodes, would just pick the phone up and call me back? Yes. He did.

The old Anderson’s Grocery up in Afton, Virginia (Avon) back in May of 2005. This is where I was when Earl first called me on my cell phone.

I remember clearly the day he called me back. I was in the old Anderson’s Store in Avon / Afton. I was getting a bowl of chili they’d made for lunch that day. I answered my cell (Nextel flip phone – lol remember those days!!) and on the other end this man said, “Tommy this is that old California country boy, how are you?” From there the friendship began until his death over a decade later.

Above one of the many special voice mails Earl would often leave at old house up in Greenfield in the north part of Nelson County. This was shortly after our first son Adam was born back in 2008. Click on the white arrow inside the orange circle to listen.

Aside from the voice mails we would get, his emails would literally have you in the floor laughing. But that’s who Earl Hamner truly was, a kind, light hearted man who dearly loved sharing that with strangers and friends. It’s no wonder he was so cherished the world over by millions.

This was just one of dozens of emails we’d get throughout months and years we knew Earl before his death. This was one where we were coordinating another interview and he sent me a proof of something he’d written recently. Ironically it was based on a couple that had moved to Virginia and started a local magazine, newspaper. It’s sounded familiar indeed! Click on image to enlarge)

Above, another dear voice mail from Earl left at our house back in December 2005 after he’d gotten his issue of then Nelson County Life Magazine. Click on the white arrow inside the orange circle to listen.

Eventually Earl even offered to write in the pages of our magazine and we graciously accepted. Truthfully he probably felt a little sorry for us just starting out and would never let us pay him, so we’d complimentary surprise ship him his favorite wine ever, Black Rock Chardonnay, from Wintergreen Winery here in Nelson. That winery has long since shuttered, but it was always a special treat to ship it out west to Earl.

Above an endearing and comical message after we’d sent Earl a case of Blackrock Chardonnay in late 2006. (Press the white arrow in the orange circle to play.)

After replaying this message, even after all of these years I say out loud to myself, “What a fabulous man.” And he was. He touched so many people in so many ways. After my own mother, who passed away some years ago now, broke her ankle in a car wreck Earl telephoned her and chatted for what she described as forever. He just wanted to cheer her up and knew she was a die hard Waltons TV fan. She was on cloud nine!

From those phone calls and emails and visits over the years, the friendship and the relationship grew with my friend somehow we just clicked. From growing up as a youngster on a farm in NW Tennessee watching the Waltons, to living in the county of its creator and becoming friends with him along the way.

Earl in the center with me on the far left and Yvette, to the right of Earl is James Person and his wife and child. James wrote the authorized biography on Earl’s life. We were all back at the old hospital birthplace of Earl in his hometown of Schuyler, Virginia. This was in August 2005.

My friend and longtime friend of Earl Hamner, Woody Greenberg, took this photo of me, Earl & my then very young daughter Peyton, back in 2014 in Schuyler, Virginia while Earl was back here. A documentary was being filmed on him at the time. Little did we know, just a couple of years later Earl would be gone for good.

Woody Greenberg that shot the photo above was in part responsible for developing the friendship between Earl and I over the years. Woody had known Earl since the 70s when he was a newspaper reporter in the area. They too became very close friends and would often fly to California and visit with Earl and his wife.

As the years ticked by, I wondered many days how much longer we’d have this international treasure around. As Earl would say himself, he was no spring chicken. He was around 90 in that photo above, and made it to 92.

A few years before his death, Earl began alluding to me that things were changing. He knew it. Unsolicited, he sent this to me one day attached to an email. I think it was his way of beginning to say goodbye. I believe he originally prepared this for his own son and daughter to explain what was happening in those final years. You can click on the image above to read it. I’d have some Kleenex nearby. It’s one of the most touching things I have ever read.

In that letter above that Earl wrote when he was in his 80s, he mentioned a big rift and distaste from some dark things that happened to he and some of his family in Schuyler. Before his death that was all resolved, and he came back to Schuyler many times with welcoming arms and a big smile. He was there just a few months before his passing. Nelson County was one of his favorite places in the world.

And then …

I was reading something on Facebook one evening and happened to see a post by Earl’s son, Scott. Earl was gone. I was floored. I cried. I called my friend Woody who’d known Earl much longer that I ever did and asked if he’d heard this. He hadn’t. We confirmed it and both realized, our friend was gone. It really was Goodnight John Boy.

On March 24th 2016, Earl Hamner was gone. Age 92. Above is what I wrote on our website the we learned of his passing. You can click on the photo above to read that story and view some other interviews and memories.

I knew from our conversations in that last year, those final few months, it wasn’t good. And then the phone calls stopped, the emails stopped. And Earl finally said goodnight.

His memory lives on up in Schuyler. His boyhood home is still there. It recently went under contract after it was put on the market. There’s still a museum honoring Earl’s work. It’s in the old school he attended. There’s also a replica B & B there that’s a near duplicate of the familiar Waltons home place from the TV series. If you’re a fan, it’s worth going to see.

There’s seldom a day I don’t think about Earl. It’s hard not to living in the county where he was raised and grew up in his younger years. I don’t get to Schuyler as much as I once did, but when I do I always smile and fondly think of Earl. Or when when I see the mountains I think of Earl.

He was just that kind of person. And I miss him to this very day.

 

The late Earl Hamner, Jr with me and Yvette at our home back in Greenfield, Virginia in North Nelson County. He and his sister Audrey had stopped by for a visit on this day back in the summer of 2006.

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About tommystafford

Recovering from life as TV news reporter. Airplane & helicopter pilot. Weather guesser. Farmer. Trail runner, dad & husband living in the beautiful Central Virginia Blue Ridge mountains!
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