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Meeting Mary McDonough: Lessons From The Mountain
I have many memories of growing up in Fresno and attending Bullard Elementary, the neighborhood school where so many friendships were formed. One of the many memories I have from that era was watching “The Waltons” with my family. That and “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights were staples of my youth.
It’s funny how I hadn’t thought of “The Waltons” in nearly thirty years until this last fall when I stumbled upon a television channel that was bringing back “The Waltons” every day, starting with a two-part reunion program featuring all of the remaining cast members. I watched that reunion program and listened to Earl Hamner, Jr. discuss how he felt that “The Waltons” reminded us of the values we hold dear during difficult times.
I found it interesting to listen to the cast members speak, for example, Ralph Waite (a former Presbyterian minister who earned a master's degree from Yale University Divinity School and who worked as a religious editor at Harper & Row in New York) talked about how Will Geer, the Grandpa, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for refusing to testify. Ralph explained that as a result, Will, who earned a masters degree in botany from the University of Chicago, was just so glad to be working and told everyone he would never leave the show. Because of the difficulty of finding acting work, Will created “Theatricum Botanicum” in Topanga, California, an outside theater featuring every plant mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. These are fascinating, well-educated people.
During the last couple of months, I’ve been able to introduce “The Waltons” to my daughter and now she knows the names of all of the characters in the family, from John-Boy to Elizabeth. I remembered why I liked the show when I was a kid, from the warm opening notes of the show’s theme music to the signature “goodnight” family members said to one another.
When I heard recently that Mary McDonough (“Erin Walton”) would be in Schuyler, Virginia, I thought: what an opportunity to go visit the real Waltons Mountain and meet a cast member at the same time. So we went. We took the seven hour drive down to Virginia and as we approached Schuyler, I kept thinking to myself, this can’t be timber country. In fact, its elevation is just 394 feet, only 69 feet higher than Fresno. Where’s the mountain?
As we arrived at our destination, a little country store next to a Baptist church on the Rockfish River Road, I took a look around and there it was, the real Waltons house, or Hamner House as it’s called, sitting right next to the store. Much smaller than the television version, I quickly realized that there wasn’t a saw mill in sight. I was told Ike Godsey’s store was just up the hill, and indeed it was, although inside it looked like any ordinary minimart which served fried chicken and fried balogna sandwiches. It turns out there never was a real Ike Godsey, although there used to be someone there who inspired the character. There also used to be a couple of old ladies in the area who made moonshine, the basis for the Baldwin Sisters.
Meeting Mary McDonough was a delight. She was very sweet with my daughter and signed for her a copy of her new book “Lessons From The Mountain: What I Learned From Erin Walton.”
There never was a real Waltons Mountain. That was Earl Hamner’s invention, for his father didn’t actually work in a saw mill: he worked in a soap stone mill that made flat table tops, an industry which failed during the Depression. But for Mary McDonough, the mountain represents all that she’s learned, especially since those days in television. Her father represents “the base layer of my mountain.” By example, her father taught her lessons about integrity, dignity, grace and respect, and how not to be negative or resentful.
What did Mary learn? Well, for one thing, acting in a top-rated television program is a pretty heady experience for anyone. These actors may have worn depression-era clothing on the set, but during breaks, they were off having lunch with Elton John or in the case of Ralph Waite, drinking as many as three martinis. They were winning awards, taking trips, and making lots of money. What a ride. By the time the show was over and Mary was 19, she was a home owner. But then in 1981, the times had changed. Reagan was bringing new optimism to the country and depression-era drama was no longer in fashion. Suddenly and without warning, The Waltons was cancelled.
At this point in Mary’s life, she could have gone off the deep end like so many other child actors. But something kept her grounded. She came from a strong Irish Catholic family and the family values her father instilled in her were not lost despite being an impressionable teenager on a hit television show.
One of the most outstanding things, in my mind, about The Waltons, was how everyone was looking out for one another, whether it was family looking out for family or friend helping friend, everyone cared about each other. And therein is the main lesson Mary took from Erin Walton.
Not long after the series ended and Mary was finding it difficult to gain acting work, Mary made the decision that breast enhancement would help jumpstart her career. It’s not a big deal, in fact, it’s rather commonplace now. But back then it carried risks few knew about. Mary had difficulties getting her own doctor to tell her - in the end, it created health problems for her and her daughter.
Today, Mary wants use what she’s learned to help other women with their body image issues - it’s Erin Walton’s lasting legacy to Mary - to help others. Mary’s book chronicles her own sense of self-doubt and how she gained the strength to become a seasoned public speaker. I think that there is an important message in there for young women.
As we said goodbye to Mary in Schuyler, she asked my daughter to please write a book report about “Lessons From The Mountain” because “there are important lessons in there for young girls.” I agree. We waved goodbye and for a laugh my daughter said, “Goodnight John-Boy.”
It was nice meeting Mary and seeing Schuyler, although I have no reason to return to be honest. The show made such a big deal about the mountain and going up to the mountain to sort out your troubles and find peace of mind. In Schuyler, there isn’t any mountain. Just an old house and a store that sells a fried balogna sandwich. The real Waltons Mountain rests in our minds-- for the Waltons really is a collective experience we all had years ago, and for me, something I’m now remembering. Meeting Mary McDonough was sort of like meeting an old friend, for in that collective experience, we were all friends helping each other get through tough times. For the actors, the experience was probably even more profound; I’m sure that for many of them, there is a real sense of family there.
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the first season of The Waltons. If you have the chance to find the program on television, tune in and remember. And if you find yourself in the Malibu area, look up Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga.
You too can meet Mary McDonough. She will be appearing at Barnes & Noble (7849 North Blackstone Avenue) on Sunday, May 22nd at 1pm.
John Renning Phillips is the author of “The Good Intent: The Story and Heritage of a Fresno Family.” He grew up in Fresno and currently lives with his wife and daughter in New York City.