To be honest, I never imagined I would meet John Walton — the Dad of The Waltons — at The Hoka in Oxford. At no point did I connect dots to that eventually happening, but it did.
It was 1983 in my junior year at Ole Miss when some friends and I went to The Hoka, a movie theater/cafe in Oxford. It wasn’t far from The Gin, sort of tucked away. I always thought they were really cool for marching to the beat of their own drum at that place. Instead of recording Uptown Funk, Bruno Mars should have done Hoka Funk right there, late one Saturday night. They used to play The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as I recall. People would bring in coolers of whatever they were drinking when watching movies. You just don’t see that at Cinemark 14 these days.
We strode in there late one night to chill out and have one of their tasty desserts when we were startled to see actor Ralph Waite, John Walton on The Waltons. He was visiting Willie Morris, the exceptional writer in residence on campus at Ole Miss. Morris’ book “The Courting of Marcus Dupress” remains one of my favorites.
I think we all stood speechless for a few seconds. Throughout most of the 1970s most of America watched The Waltons. Waite was perfectly cast as John Walton, Sr., the father of the Waltons, who were trying to make it during the Depression by operating a lumber mill at the base of a Virginia mountain. His character was a low key pillar of strength, a steadying force always for that family. Besides cutting wood, John Walton also made time to create young ‘uns, as he had seven children – one called John Boy. I can remember being at Lafayette High watching The Waltons being thankful I wasn’t called Charlie Boy.
Being a gung ho Ole Miss journalism and communications student, I immediately went back to campus with someone and got a video camera from Tel-O-Miss News (that is what we called the Ole Miss student TV News) and we quickly came back and tried to get an “exclusive” interview with Waite. We were eager beaver future 60 Minutes correspondents, of course. I remember the camera light coming on and Waite wincing! Willie Morris, who was a big deal nationally as a writer, cried out, “No, no, turn the light off!” He was nice about it, but got the message across. We turned it all off and as I recall did not interview him. We all talked with him a bit and left him to his Hoka cheesecake and conversation with Willie.
When Waite died at 85 about five years ago this month, I found myself thinking back to that night in Oxford and I started reading up on Waite. Like millions of Americans, I knew him as the Waltons dad, but he was that and so much more in life. First of all, he played the role so well that a poll of TV Guide readers of the “50 Greatest Dads of All Time” rated him No. 3, behind only Dr. Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” and Ben Cartwright on “Bonanza.”
Long before his acting success, Waite earned his master’s in divinity from Yale. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and served congregations in New York. Charred by what he felt was hypocrisy in the church, he left to become an assistant book editor at Harper and Row and at a friend’s suggestion dipped his toe in the acting sea. Stage work led to being in Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman. The next thing you know he is on The Waltons and everybody with a pulse in America is watching him and his pretty wife Olivia, and all those kids.
The Waltons was not supposed to make it as it was launched against Flip Wilson’s show and The Mod Squad. Instead, it ended up sending them off the air, with much credit going to how Waite played the father. The Waltons impacted so many people. I remember coming across a New York Times article that had the story of a woman coming up to Waite and telling him that she grew up without a father and the way he played the father on The Waltons was a steadying force for her. She felt he was her dad growing up and she credited him for going to college and becoming a lawyer. Waite told the Times that kind of thing happened to him a lot and it was overwhelming.
When we ran into him at The Hoka he had a recurring role as retired lawyer Ben Walker on “The Mississippi” (1982-84). For the life of me, I had no idea that series existed then or now. For those of us from Mississippi, we should know if there was a TV show called “The Mississippi.” Parts of it were filmed in Natchez and Memphis.
The Hoka has been gone for over 20 years from what I understand. Many interesting people visited it. I was fortunate to have been there the night the paternal voice of wisdom on The Waltons came by.
Charlie Adams was born in Oxford in 1962. He was a 1980 graduate of Lafayette High School and a 1985 graduate of Ole Miss. Following a television news career, Charlie has focused on delivering inspirational keynotes, seminars and writings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.