Schuyler native Earl Hamner Jr., who put Nelson County on the national map with his 1970s Emmy-winning series, “The Waltons,” died from cancer March 24 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles listening to “Rocky Mountain High,” according to his son’s post on Facebook. He was 92.
Best known for “The Waltons,” he also wrote episodes for “The Twilight Zone” and created the 1980s series set in Napa Valley, “Falcon Crest.” He wrote four novels, including Spencer’s Mountain, published in 1961, upon which “The Waltons” series was based.
Hamner’s life growing up during the Depression in Nelson County was the source material for “The Waltons,” and he said in 2003 that one of the things of which he was most proud was how the show changed the perception of the people who lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“The village of Schuyler where I grew up was once thought of as being peopled by gun-toting, illiterate, xenophobic, moonshine-swilling hillbillies,” he said. “Through my books and my television shows, I was able to give the area and the people a more positive image, an image that has been seen in every country in the world except China and Russia.”
Hamner himself exemplified the decency of the television family he created, and while he was pegged as a “soft” writer in Hollywood, he had much more depth and versatility. “‘The Waltons’ were the light side of my personality, and ‘Falcon Crest’ the dark side,” he said.
For years, Schuyler was home of the Walton’s Mountain Museum until a dispute with the museum management and the ouster of Hamner’s younger brother, Jim, caused Hamner to pull out memorabilia he’d donated.
Boomie Pedersen, founder of the Hamner Theater, remembers him coming to Nelson, sitting on the stage and reading from his novella, The Homecoming, which the theater adapted for its first production and subsequent shows.
“Most of all it was his voice—it was an amazing, soothing, comforting sound, which was the narrator’s voice on ‘The Waltons’,” she says.
Hamner was a consummate storyteller, and said, “Writing is rewriting,” recalls Pedersen. “That was such a gift for writers.”
He was also the consummate Southern gentleman,. “Earl is one of the kindest people I ever met,” she says. “He epitomized kindness and generosity.”
Each episode of “The Waltons” ended with the family saying good night to each other, something Hamner said his own family did. “Good night, John-Boy” became a tagline for a generation.
Good night, Earl Hamner.