Two of Nelson County’s native sons were honored Saturday with larger-than-life statues to commemorate their impact on the world of entertainment and their commitment to sharing the stories of ordinary people.
The bronze sculptures of Earl Hamner Jr., author, screenwriter, producer and creator of the television series “The Waltons” and “Falcon Crest,” and Jimmy Fortune, member of the country music group the Statler Brothers, were unveiled to a crowd of more than 150 Saturday afternoon at the Nelson County Historical Society and Oakland Museum in Arrington.
More than just entertainers, both men helped to share the stories of often forgotten people.
“He always tried to show the humanity of poor people, people of color, rural people, hungry people, struggling people – the people you’d never seen on TV before, and he treated them with respect,” Judy Norton, who played Mary Ellen Walton on “The Waltons,” said of Hamner.
While Norton was expected Saturday, the audience was treated to a surprise appearance by Don Reid, lead singer of the Statler Brothers. Reid echoed Norton’s words.
“Like Earl, Jimmy listened to the people around him, what they were saying what was important to them, then wrote about these ordinary, everyday people and showed how extraordinary they actually lived,” Reid said.
Hamner, who would have turned 100 on Monday, captured the hearts of millions with the Walton family living through the Great Depression and later World War II in a rural county outside Charlottesville. The show, which aired from 1972 to 1981, was inspired by Hamner’s novel “Spencer’s Mountain,” which was also made into a 1963 film starring Henry Fonda. No matter the medium, the story always showcased the importance of family, love and resilience — something that clearly resonated across generations given how often the story was told and retold.
“Earl was able to show the strengths and the flaws of the Waltons with their stubbornness and their griping in a way that celebrated how real families are,” Kami Cotler, who played Elizabeth Walton on the show, told the crowd Saturday.
Fortune, with his rich tenor voice and charismatic stage presence, played a pivotal role in shaping the sound of the Statler Brothers. Their unique harmonies and heartfelt lyrics garnered them numerous accolades and an adoring fan base, securing their place in country music history. American writer Kurt Vonnegut dubbed the band “America’s Poets” and once suggested their song “Class of ‘57” be made the national anthem.
“When Jimmy came across the mountain one day, the four of us stood around an old upright piano and sang a song,” Reid said. “It has been amazing ever since. … We got our harmonies, our lives and we have been close in space since.”
Both Hamner and Fortune grew up in Nelson County. Hamner’s childhood home in Schuyler, bearing a striking resemblance to the Walton residence, still stands today. Even though Hamner went on to gain fame, fortune and awards, including two Emmys for his shows, he stayed true to his roots and never forgot where he came from, friends recalled.
“His stories were rooted in his family and his early life in Nelson County: this place, the people who lived and died here, and his upbringing,” Michael McGreevey, an actor and writer on “The Waltons” and a co-producer of a documentary on Hamner, said. “His mission as a storyteller was very simple. His goal was to write about ordinary people and to reveal how extraordinary they were.”
Like Hamner, Fortune’s Nelson roots are obvious in his art, Reid said.
“Earl, like millions everywhere, so loved Jimmy’s talent,” Reid said. “Jimmy’s voice and music always remained true to his Virginia roots, Nelson County and the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Both men, linked by place and time, grew to be close friends, up until Hamner’s death in 2016. Fortune paid tribute to his friend’s legacy leading the crowd in the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” Few had dry eyes by the end.
The standing ovation Fortune received after the song serves as a testament to the legacy of both men’s ideals that resonate today.
“Fifty years since its humble beginnings, ‘The Waltons’ is still one of the most popular shows around the world” McGreevy said.
“Earl was the pebble that continues to make ripples to this day five decades later,” David Harper, better known as Jim Bob Walton, said.