BY SUZANNE KELMAN
July 19, 2013
Last week the death of Joe Conley happened with little hype or fanfare; his passing over-shadowed by much more sensational things in the news, such as plane and train crashes, and controversial court decisions.
And why wouldn’t it? Even though Joe Conley worked in the film industry, he was no Robert Redford or Lawrence Oliver. He had no rich extensive body of work to leave behind. He was just an 85-year-old actor, who had lived a good and long life.
But for me, the passing of the man who immortalized the character of Ike Godsey in the 70’s T.V. show, The Walton’s, felt like a small death of my childhood innocence.
The Walton’s series, which ran from 1971 to 1981, was a formative part of my childhood. Not only did I want to be one of the Walton’s, I would often find myself asking questions like, “Now what would Mary Ellen do about this?” Or “What would Olivia Walton advise me to do here?”
I would braid my hair just like Elizabeth, and my brother and sisters, still needing the gentle security of a familiar voice before settling down alone in a darkened room, would playfully call out to each other “Goodnight John-boy.” “Goodnight Mary Ellen.”
So, when I read the news of Mr. Conley’s death, it grieved and saddened me. I realized that my adult brain had never really taken that leap from its own childhood imaginings; that step of no return that one day informs us that there are no tooth fairies, or that the roaring in the sky is not actually a dragon, but just an airplane soaring overhead.
And because my childhood mind had not taken this important rite-of-passage, up until this point, somewhere in the far reaches of my mind, I had actually still believed that Ike owned a little store on Walton’s mountain, and he and his wife Corabeth were happily working through their Golden Years, with hundreds of Walton grandbabies doing a brisk trade in sugar and fabric.
As I measured my strong reaction for the death of a fictional character whom I hadn’t watched in years, I found myself asking what is it about this family-focused TV show from a bygone era that had got under my skin? Did I want to live through the Great Depression running around a mountain in Virginia barefoot or killing chickens with my own hands?
But did I want to live in a world where I could sit at a table and my voice was important? Where a loving and caring family was all that truly mattered to make it through any obstacle? Where I was surrounded by a small, close-knit community of caring, loving people?
Well, hell yes!
And this is when I realized that in a world of cookie-cutter T.V. shows, and dramatic C.G.I-indulgent movies, real storytelling is a very different animal. It should strive, in whatever form your “Walton Mountain” fancies takes you, to give us a sense of place in the world; a true sense of connection, a place where we can hang our hat and say that what home, love, joy, happiness looks like to me.
And that’s what The Walton’s series represented to me, storytelling at its purest form. Sure, the thrilling movies that scare or shock us have their place, but their impact can be no sharper or long-reaching than a bee sting. True storytelling has the ability to weave its way deep under our layers and into the fabric of our hearts. It reminds us that the world can be a good and wonderful place.
We know when we are in the presence of good screenwriting or storytelling. Because we are not just swept away for a minute, but find ourselves suspending belief in such a way that we actually start to question whether what we are watching is real or even possible.
I feel fortunate that I found my own kind of “Walton’s Mountain” right here on Whidbey Island. A place I call home; a place that embodies all that is important to me. Beauty and nature surround me at every turn, and I live in a thriving, caring community that I love being a member of. But the dream of its possibility was born in a darkened room, in front of the television set, 30 plus years ago.
In an interview for The-Waltons.com, Conley said he knew that the “Waltons” role had forever marked him.
“To millions of people I am Ike Godsey,” he said. “People walk up and just call me Ike and carry on a conversation like we are old friends. I have to remember that for 10 years, I did visit their home every week. To them I am an old friend or a member of the family.”
Yes, you were Joe Conley. Thank you for your contribution to my growing-up years. I am grateful for a show that we could watch as a family, that was wholesome and, in its own gentle way, thought-provoking. A place I could say, yes one day that’s what home will look like to me.
Goodnight Ike… and God bless.
Suzanne Kelman is a multi-award winning, optioned screenwriter. She has just finished editing her comedy novel, “The Rejected Ladies Club Roadtrip,” that will be available for purchase on Amazon in the fall. She has also just completed her latest screenplay “Collision.” Her previous screenplay, “Illusion” was a winner in June in the Hollywood screenplay competition, “100 Screenplays.” Kelman enjoys teaching screenwriting classes at her home studio in Bayview. If interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.