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Why ‘The Waltons,’ the classic TV show that just turned 50, wasn’t afraid of religion

During the pandemic lockdown, I rediscovered “The Waltons” and watched all 221 episodes.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that the classic TV show about a Depression-era family in rural Virginia made its prime-time debut on Sept. 14, 1972.

That’s 50 years ago.

I started emailing myself notes about religion references in specific episodes — those with titles such as “The Sinner,” “The Sermon” and “The Baptism” — and marked the anniversary date on my calendar. Journalists are always looking for a story, don’t you know?

I pitched a piece to The Associated Press. To my delight, Global Religion news director David Crary and news editor Holly Meyer let me write it.

Speaking of AP friends, Matt Curry and I worked together in the Dallas bureau from 2003 to 2005. Curry later left journalism and attended Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. He’s a big fan of “The Waltons,” and his family’s experience became the lede for my feature:

The Rev. Matt Curry’s parents were children of the Great Depression, just like “The Waltons” — the beloved TV family whose prime-time series premiered 50 years ago.

When Curry was growing up on a farm in northern Texas, his carpenter father and teacher mother often argued playfully over who had a poorer childhood.

“The Depression was the seminal time of their lives — the time that was about family and survival and making it through,” said Curry, now a 59-year-old Presbyterian pastor in Owensboro, Kentucky. “My dad used to talk about how his dad would go work out of town and send $5 a week to feed and clothe the family.”

So when “The Waltons,” set in 1932 and running through World War II, debuted on CBS on Sept. 14, 1972, the Currys identified closely with the storylines.

I enjoyed interviewing two stars of “The Waltons”: Richard Thomas (John-Boy Walton) and Kami Cotler (Elizabeth Walton).

The story explores how the series delved into spiritual themes at a time when the TV networks tended to avoid them. As for the reason, Thomas points to the show’s creator, the late Earl Hamner Jr., on whose life the fictional series is based:

“The religious aspect of the show had to do with the fact that Earl Hamner was talking about a time and a place … where those issues were very much in play,” said Thomas, now a grandfather of four. “I mean, in a small community in the mountains of Virginia in the Depression, if you don’t deal with the church aspect of things, then you don’t deal with things as they were.”

In a 1976 episode, a judge trying to persuade John-Boy, an aspiring writer, not to print an embarrassing story in the Blue Ridge Chronicle tells him: “John, you’re taking yourself and your paper much too seriously. You’re not representing the New York Times or even the Charlottesville Progress. You’re a little county newspaper.”

“Judge Thornbury,” John-Boy responds, “I’m very well aware of the fact that I’m not in the same league with any of those newspapers in many ways, but I like to think I have something in common with them, and that’s a little bit of integrity.”

A cool thing: My AP story made Wednesday’s front page of the Charlottesville Progress — about 25 miles from where Hamner grew up.

Read the rest of the column.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

“Weekend Plug-in,”  featuring analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith, is produced each week by Religion Unplugged.

Filed under: Culture depression Elizabeth Walton entertainment family TV Features Inside Story John-Boy Kami Cotler National Opinion Richard Thomas television The Waltons Top Stories Virginia Weekend Plug-In

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