“And ah one…and ah two…,” Lawrence Welk cheerfully sang as he conducted the band to begin playing an old familiar tune that usually featured an elaborate skit in his hit public television program The Lawrence Welk Show. In the late summer evenings, after spending several hours playing in the pool, I
was required to bathe to keep my hair from turning a chlorinated green color. Sitting cross-legged on my parent’s bedroom floor in flowy, pink, butterfly-printed chiffon pajamas—with wet hair that my sister had just neatly combed—I became completely mesmerized as each performer elegantly swept across the stage perfectly in sync with the music.
It became a ritual.
So enamored by the glamour of each set and costume, I began to look forward to my nightly shower since it allowed me to watch the sixty-minute segment, which typically ran well past my bedtime. I became lost in the history of each skit—as if it were time travel. However, the beloved television program is special to me beyond these characteristics—each segment served as the medium through which my father connected with his. My dad’s biological father was an absent figure who suffered from alcoholism all throughout his life, so when he gained a stepfather in the first grade, William Kyle Thurmond Jr., my father idolized his every rule and sacrifice. Each summer evening as I sat on my dad’s bedroom floor it became clear that I was not the only one completely mesmerized by the program. My father’s eyes beamed as he sang along with Lawrence Welk, and, like clockwork, at the end of each program he would say to me with the upmost admiration, “That was your grandpa Bill’s favorite show.”
William Kyle Thurmond, Jr., remains one of my greatest childhood wonders. Raised in Healdton, Oklahoma, William was born in December 1930, right at the brink of America’s most exponential financial crisis. Growing up, my family told mesmerizing stories about a neatly dressed, well mannered, gentle man who brought so much light to everyone around him, especially his children. Without fail, whoever shared these fond reflections with me always attached a somewhat uniform reminder that this mountain of a man—William Kyle Thurmond, Jr.—found the very same joy that he had constantly provided others with in his newborn grandchild—me. Even today, my grandmother reminds me of how deeply my grandfather loved me and of the significance that my presence had on him before he passed of cancer in 1996 when I was just one year old. For example, upon request for photographs of my grandfather, my grandma also attached the typical, yet enthralling anecdote that has become almost routine whenever I ask about his legacy. Her text included a photograph of my grandfather, outdoors per usual, holding me close to his chest as he seemingly musters what is left of his strength to flash his staple grin. She reflected, “I hope you can see the love he had for you; I can. As you can see in the one when you were older he was so sick and loved you so much; always remember this.”
These particular stories have always contained a certain degree of mystery to me, given that I never knew my grandfather in the intimate ways that the rest of my family did. Yet, this man had allegedly formed a special relationship with me in the short amount of time that we shared the Earth. It feels like magic to know that I brought so much light to a person who was a blessing to all the people that who raised and loved me, which is what compelled me to try and connect with my grandfather in any way possible. Whether it was watching his favorite show or going on fishing trips with my dad, I developed an interest in some of his favorite things, many of which he cherished from his childhood during the Great Depression.
William’s entire childhood occurred during the Great Depression and by a young age he experienced more strife than most people encounter throughout an entire lifetime.
In Russell Freedman’s book “Children of The Great Depression,” Freedman states that the 1929 stock market crash left “one third of the nation ill housed—unable to stay warm, bathe or adequately store food.” Given the circumstances of the Great Depression, it would logically follow that the children of this generation would grow into bitter adults. However, this is exactly opposite of how my grandfather came to mature, which I believe is due in part to the values instilled in him at a young age by his family and community. When money is scarce and difficult times become hard to escape, as in the Great Depression, many families like my grandfathers’ found it necessary to prioritize and relish moments of leisure in order to relieve stress as America’s middle class depleted into a state of poverty. Although the stock market crash in 1929 had a devastating effect on the Thurmond’s financial status, many Oklahomans were able to afford hours of leisure by fishing at state-managed reservoir or listening to radio programs. According to Peter Kurtz, “America fell in love with dance bands in the 20s and 30s and a new dance form was born.” Towards the end of the Great Depression, many American industries, such as music and automobile, underwent extreme changes and the United States that the children of this generation once knew became increasingly unfamiliar.
As William grew older, one of the ways he reminisced on his childhood memories from the Great Depression was through a public television program that swept across the nation. In 1955, Lawrence Welk started his own variety series that aired on “public television nationally on a weekly basis through the Oklahoma Education Television Authority.” Welk created a program that primarily catered to a middle-aged audience, who shared a nostalgia for the days of their halcyon youth, by dedicating sixty minutes to the dancing and music that was once popular during the 20s and 30s. Kathy Lennon, a regular performer on the hit series The Lawrence Welk Show, stated in an article to the Los Angeles Times that Welk “wanted to give people music he thought they could understand, and he didn’t think they could understand Beatles or Stevie Wonder songs.”
Perhaps this dance band craze explains the rise in popularity of later TV shows like Lawrence Welk. An article from the History Network claims that “for the generation that grew up on the big bands of the 30s and 40s, The Lawrence Welk Show was a blessed island of calm in a world gone mad for rock and roll, and it aired like clockwork every Saturday night from 1955 to 1982.”
Given that Welk “deliberately aimed his show towards a specific audience: white, Midwestern, conservative, Christians,” it’s clear to see why my grandfather grew so fond of this particular program. The hobbies that William enjoyed during the Great Depression, such as fishing and listening to music, carried over into his adulthood. Clearly he never devalued moments of leisure, as he found relaxation therapeutic. My father recalls one of William’s favorite pastime to watch The Lawrence WelkShowafter a long day of work, as “it has a high ‘feel good’ factor’” and “is a great way to forget the stresses in life.”
After graduating from Oklahoma State University, my grandfather moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where he met and married my grandmother, Martha, in 1969.
At the time, my grandmother was a divorcee as well as a mother to three young boys, but William gladly stepped into the role of a father, raised her children like his own, and eventually the couple gave birth to their final child, Monica Thurmond. My dad was in the first grade when William entered his life and had a monumental impact on shaping my father into the person he is today. William forged a special relationship with my dad by introducing him to all the activities that he once loved during the Great Depression. My grandfather made outdoor weekend retreats an annual family tradition as he often brought his children along on fishing trips to learn and admire moments of leisure. William bequeathed his childhood passions onto his own kids simply by taking them on fishing trips or sitting down to watch an old-fashion television program as a family. Even my grandfather’s insistence on vehicular safety was so influential on my dad that he continued to honor William’s household rule on buckling seat belts before starting the car. My dad remembers William holding a firm standard, as he endearingly chanted his signature phrase, “buckle up for safety” to everyone seated in the car.
Prior to the Great Depression, the automobile industry was booming with success as middle class citizens could finally purchase Henry Ford’s Model T at the affordable price of $825. From 1908 to 1929, Ford was America’s largest automobile manufacturer, accounting for about 80 percent of the industry’s output. My grandfather’s family likely owned the Model T, which was intended to be a farmer’s car, during the Great Depression. The History Network reports that an increasing demand for vehicles in the early 1900s led to “installment sales of automobiles during the twenties that established the purchasing of expensive consumer goods on credit as a middle-class habit and a mainstay of the American economy.” Given that the 1930’s presented challenges of “market saturation and technological stagnation,” the automobile industry began placing a new emphasis on style. Alfred P. Sloan Jr. took leadership of General Motors, a top competitor of Ford, in the 1930s and restyled vehicles “to coincide with the economics of die life” with the goal “to make consumers dissatisfied enough to trade in and presumably up to a more expensive model long before the useful life of their present cars had ended.” By 1936, General Motors “claimed 43 percent of the U.S. market; Ford with 22 percent had fallen to third place behind Chrysler with 25 percent.”
The automobile industry in the United States constantly evolved throughout my grandfathers’ life, but one thing remained constant—vehicular safety. As technologies revolutionized and highway construction peaked, my grandfather realized the need for passengers to ‘buckle up’ before revving the engine. William’s almost charming demand influenced my dad to create the same expectation in my family and was enforced to the extent that I too won’t start my car until everyone I’m driving—friends included—buckle up as well.
All throughout my life, my grandfather’s legacy has had a significant impact in shaping the person I am today. From a young age, my family described the bond I shared with William as special, which fueled my curiosity and compelled me to find ways to create a connection with him. Whether it was going on fishing expeditions with my own dad or watching late summer night episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show, I have been determined to know this man in the same way that my family claims that he knew me. I not only vividly remember watching The Lawrence Welk Showin complete awe, but also pondering what my grandfather would have thought whenever he watched it. I became partial to the performance of “Champagne Bubbles”—I loved watching the television screen become littered with suds as men in tuxedos played their instruments. As I sat on my parents’ bedroom floor in pink chiffon pajamas—completely mesmerized by the same performers that once entertained my grandfather—I wondered if he had watched the same episode and what he would have thought of the Lennon Sisters. loved their segments on the show.
This project is the first time in my life where I feel like I’ve really gotten to know my grandfather, just from researching places he would have frequented, the schools he attended, and studying his hometown’s foundational history. The hobbies that William formed during his childhood in the Great Depression, especially leisurely activities, were passed down to his children, who in turn passed them down to theirs. By engaging in activities that my grandfather once cherished, my family built a perfect legacy of man who always found a way to bring light to those around him by teaching others the value in taking a moment to slow things down, no matter how tough circumstances seemed.
As much as I’ve heard about how I brought joy to my grandpa Bill, I had never experienced the same light that he once provided others with until now. I understand why his loved ones speak of him as though he was larger than life.
And so, grandpa Bill, it has been just wunnerful to meet you again. As Lawrence Welk would sing at the end of each episode, “and though it’s always sweet sorrow to part, you know you’ll always remain in my heart—goodnight, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to you.”
“Lawrence Welk Is Born.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/lawrence-welk-is-born.
“The Lawrence Welk Show.” The Lawrence Welk Show, www.oeta.tv/watch/welk/.
History.com Staff. “Automobile History.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/automobiles.
Freedman, Russell. Children of the Great Depression. Paw Prints, 2011.