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He was a Yalie? Ralph Waite, Walton daddy and div school grad

Children of the ’70s know Ralph Waite ’56BD as the kindhearted patriarch of The Waltons, a rural Virginia family struggling through the Great Depression. Later TV viewers might know him as Father Matt on Days of Our Lives or as Mark Harmon’s father on NCIS.

Few know that Waite, who died in February, was a graduate of Yale—and not of the School of Drama.

“I went to seminary after college—Yale Divinity School,” are the first words Waite utters in a video interview with INSP, a family-friendly cable channel that marked what would have Waite’s 86th birthday with a “special Sunday marathon” yesterday.

Ordained a Presbyterian minister, Waite served three parishes before “some disenchantment with the church” prompted him to leave, he says in the INSP interview.

“I was never a particularly religious man,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1976. “I was more interested in social justice.”

An ex-Marine and social worker, he edited religious books before becoming an actor.

“I didn't start even thinking about acting until I was 35,” he says in the INSP interview. “And I also got into some heavy drinking.”

In fact, Waite was an active alcoholic when he began playing John Walton, the strong and steady father of seven children. But he soon entered a recovery program.

“The character of the father, the make-up of the family, the character of the family itself, became very sobering to him, and it literally sobered him up,” Earl Hamner, creator of the semiautobiographical series, said after Waite’s death.

The actor’s recovery eventually “helped me ease back toward the church,” said Waite. He also ran for Congress twice in California and continued acting until his death.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Ralph Waite, Divinity School, The Waltons

1 comment

  • Dana J
    Dana J, 6:25am June 26 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Rest in peace Ralph Waite. Once an earthly actor now a heavenly angel. You were a talented and engaging actor. You will be missed.

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