May 24, 2013
Written by Ellen Beveridge
Monday, 15 March 2010 17:21
A recent television auto insurance ad caught my eye. It showed the farmhouse from “The Waltons,” the popular family-oriented show from the 1970s, as family members said goodnight to each other, the signature ending to every show.
Once again my memory bank was set into motion. I remembered watching the show that included Grandpa Walton, portrayed by Will Geer. More to the point, I began to think about meeting Will Geer, and how I had come to write a feature story about him for the Trumbull Times.
It all began when I learned from a woman in Trumbull that Geer occasionally came from his home on the West Coast to tend his garden in the Nichols section of Trumbull. The garden was on the woman’s property, she told me, and they had been friends for many years.
I asked my “Deep Throat,” so to speak, to let me know the next time he was coming to visit.
The day came, and true to form, I found Geer busy doing one of the things he enjoyed most — working in the garden. Dressed in green coveralls and old black shoes with no socks, he walked around the yard with his rimless, Ben Franklin glasses, perched atop a silvery mane that fell below his ears.
Then, putting his shovel aside, we sat down at a small table in the yard. A cat jumped on the table, and he petted it affectionately. As he spoke, his blue eyes twinkled and a smile formed beneath a shaggy mustache.
“I like people almost as much as I like plants and animals,” Geer said On a more serious note he continued, “We must learn to get along with the trees and the animals. The trouble is we humans always think of it the other way around.”
Then I was struck by another bit of philosophy that is just as true today as it was then: “We’ve got to get people back to work. A person has to have work to live in dignity, to have recognition as a human being.”
He crossed his arms and leaned on the table. “I’m not a pessimist, but it’s a horrible thing having masses of people who take no interest whatsoever in what’s going on. We have to be concerned about politics instead of sitting around in apathy, saying, ‘this too will pass,’ when it will likely get worse if we don’t get interested, if we don’t care.”
A tour of his garden followed. It was not really a garden in the usual sense, but more a collection of rare plantings he had collected during the 15 years he had been coming to Trumbull.
Geer pointed to rare trees like the Gingko from China and the Franklin, named for Benjamin Franklin that he brought from Georgia. Contrary to trees indigenous to this area that flower in the spring, the Franklin was in full bloom when we met in the fall, with buttercup-shaped flowers.
He also identified a scrubby little tree as a Bristle Cone Pine that he transplanted from the White Mountains in California. “It’s older than the Redwood,” he said.
A noted Shakespearean actor, Geer first came to this area in the mid-l950s when he appeared for several seasons at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. Interestingly, one of his hobbies was growing many of the trees and plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays — like the Medlar Tree, mint and thyme — and planting them in the theater garden.
“I have over 100 plants that I have grown and transplanted to the Shakespearean garden at the theater,” he said. (Considering the disrepair of the theater today, one can only wonder what has happened to the garden.)
Geer had one thing he was determined to do during this visit. In response to fan letters written by children in a first grade class at Nichols School (now the Trumbull Senior Center), he wanted to go to the school the following morning, so I offered to drive him there.
I owned a small-sized car at the time. The next morning, Geer, a large man more than six feet tall, settled into the passenger seat. The car tilted noticeably, and I instinctively tightened my grip on the steering wheel.
His attire had improved slightly. He worn a navy shirt and a large felt hat that he removed with a flourish as he entered the first grade classroom.
“Welcome to Walton’s Mountain,” he said. His presence was commanding, and as the children recognized him, they reacted with a mixture of awe, smiles and giggles. It was as if Santa Claus had just entered the room.
Geer returned their letters to the children, accompanied by his autographed picture. Then he continued to bring his greetings from Walton’s Mountain to every classroom. At lunch time he ate school-made pizza in the cafeteria, the hot lunch specialty that day.
I ended my feature by writing that Geer was scheduled to fly back to California the next day, and it would probably be spring before he returned to his garden again.
Sadly, there probably was not enough time for many more visits. Will Geer passed away on April 22, 1978 at the age of 76..
“Actor Will Geer tends to his garden paradise here” was published in the Oct. 23, 1975 issue of the Trumbull Times.
Note: If anyone who reads this column was a student or teacher at Nichols School on the day of Geer’s visit, I would appreciate hearing from you. Your memories of the event may make an interesting follow-up story. If you respond, please give permission for me to use your name in the follow-up column.
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