Mountain love: Waltons fans converge on Doubletree


The Waltons were a cultural phenomenon. Norman Rockwell did a cover for the Saturday Evening Post in 1973, seating the show's characters at the Thanksgiving Dinner table made famous by his WWII illustration, "Freedom from Want." Being tied to an American icon by an iconographic illustrator is heady stuff.

TV is larger than reality. A Google search on the Waltons returns 16,900 results, while a Google Search on Schuyler, Virginia, returns 551 results.

I didn't own a TV from 1972 to 1980. I'd heard of The Waltons the same way today I've heard of Britney Spears. But I was then, and I remained until the end of last week when they all came back for a reunion, blissfully ignorant about the series created by Schuyler native Earl Hamner (who also piloted Falcon Crest, starring Ronald Reagan's first wife).

My expectations for the shindig were low-key. I hoped to meet Earl, ask if he had feelings of kinship with Thomas Wolfe. Substitute Schuyler for Asheville, substitute Hamner for Wolfe. But the author, while participating in the events of the weekend, did not attend the function at the DoubleTree Hotel in Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon.

So, for you Waltons cognoscenti, Elizabeth, Jason, Toni, and Erin were on hand. My efforts to photograph the correct people as they arrived were gracefully, willingly, directed by the various Waltons fans in attendance.

What is left 20+ years after the regular run of a TV show is over? A windowless room on a super-wide highway, a windowless room just north of a Sam's Club and a Wal-Mart (what would Ike Godsey, the show's shop proprietor have to say about the Arkansas Big Box Boy?).

What is left? A whole lot of love, love for each other, love for the mountain. Maudlin? Saccharine? There's the temptation to ridicule, but step into that room, and meet those fans. I want those people on my team.

They came from 16 states, from England and Canada. Elements of the Waltons' faux lives resonated so strongly with their real lives that the line where Waltons influence stops is not clear.

Take, for instance, character Toni. On the show, she's the token rural Jewish girl who ends up dating second Walton son Jason. In real life, they got more serious.

"One thing led to another," says actor Jon "Jason Walton" Walmsley, who married actress Lisa "Toni Hazelton" Harrison in 1979 when the show was still running. They started a band together.

Another interesting return to the mecca is Kami Cotler. The baby of the show, she was 16 when it ended. Later she wound up teaching in Nelson County, Earl's old stompin' ground. But she recently moved to San Diego.

"I miss my students. I miss fireflies. I miss spring and fall– don't really miss summer," she says.

Cathy Stamman and her husband, David, have attended every Waltons fan club reunion since the club's inception in 1992. Three of those meetings required that the Stammans travel from Grove City, Ohio, to Los Angeles.

Cathy and her twin sister, Vicky Choudry, are known as the "Waltons' nannies." Cast members attending the reunions are often accompanied by their children, and the twins voluntarily provide child-care. They are faux aunts caring for the faux first cousins of faux siblings. But it works. This is a family selected by its members. What has Earl wrought?

Maybe I should buy the Columbia House issue of the 24 first-season episodes. Get to know the Walton family. Watch "The Typewriter," "The Sinner," "The Ceremony," "The Easter Story," catch up on some Nelson County Americana.

Am I in danger of becoming a devotee? No, I don't see it happening. But these people came together in the new millennium, under the shadow of the global economy, global terrorism, crusade and jihad. They say hello to each other, they've never met a stranger, and they say good-night in a heart-warming way.