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At end of newsman's career, 'family movie' celebrates tiny town where John Wilson got started

Longtime WTVT-Ch. 13 news anchor John Wilson stands outside his family’s home in Big Stone Gap, Va. The bridge leading to the property is named for his father.
Longtime WTVT-Ch. 13 news anchor John Wilson stands outside his family’s home in Big Stone Gap, Va. The bridge leading to the property is named for his father.
Published Nov. 23, 2014

By Jay Cridlin | Times Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.

John Wilson has skydived with men who stormed Normandy, rubbed shoulders with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia, looked a dying Ted Bundy in the eye. He does not cry at movies.

On this crisp Virginia evening, he is sitting, dry-eyed, in the center of the Paramount Theater, Row L, Seat 11, for the world premiere of the latest film featuring his youngest son, Patrick, the Broadway and Hollywood star. Patrick is the film's male lead, the dreamy coal miner who woos an unlucky-in-love Ashley Judd. He's up there on stage, waving to a sold-out house alongside his wife, sons and brother Paul.

John understands this kind of attention. He will retire Wednesday as the lead evening anchor at WTVT-Ch. 13, capping 33 years as one of Tampa Bay's best-known newsmen, and he's the patriarch of one of its most famous families — father not only to Patrick and Paul, but fellow news anchor Mark, who will fill his chair at WTVT. At these premieres, he blends into the scenery with his wife, Mary K.

This night, however, feels different. More personal.

Though Patrick has a lead role, the film's real star is its setting — a tiny, struggling town whose winding back roads John, 73, knows by heart. It's where he fell in love with the news, where he learned to seek the spotlight and encourage his sons to do the same — a town, he says, "where I learned my rules of life and tried to carry them forward with my kids and their kids."

The lights dim and the movie begins. "I was born and raised in the hills of Virginia, when coal was king," a voice says over footage that looks like home movies. On the screen, in gold block letters across an autumn mountain landscape, blooms the title: Big Stone Gap.

Here, John Wilson's eyes begin to well.

• • •

Mark Wilson estimates his father has spent 18,600 hours — equal to more than two solid years — reporting the news on television. His career spans a half-century and stations in Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., and Norfolk and Richmond, Va.

But it started in Big Stone Gap, Va., deep in the Appalachian Mountains, in the hilltop headquarters of 1,000-watt 1220 AM, broadcasting to Wise, Lee, Scott and Dickenson counties. Call letters: WLSD. "It was a different time," Wilson said with a chuckle.

This was teenage Johnny Wilson's first on-air job, reading news wire copy, playing local preachers' sermons on Sunday, spinning big-band records and, now and then, a little Elvis.

Johnny was a single son raised on the outskirts of town, just down the road from his grandparents' farm, where home-cooked dinners took place every Sunday and the annual pig killing was a big clan to-do.

His dad, Paul J., was the comptroller for Westmoreland Coal, a big regional employer. He'd hunt with his buddies, but he never pulled the trigger. Instead, he learned taxidermy, endearing himself to local sportsmen. His mother, Carol, was a volunteer receptionist for decades at Lonesome Pine Hospital. They belonged to many civic and social clubs, and sang and played music in a church that Paul J.'s father helped found. Eventually the road by the house was renamed Wilson Road; when Paul J. died, the simple paved bridge that fed it — a bridge he helped maintain — became the Paul J. Wilson Memorial Bridge.

Spurred by his parents' love of music, Johnny picked up the trombone, matching his pitch to the notes of his teacher's piano — "Bach, Toccatta and Fugue, is the first thing I remember playing, aside from Mary Had a Little Lamb," he said. At Big Stone Gap High School, he sang in the chorus, played in the orchestra and twirled a baton down Wood Avenue as the marching band's drum major. He read Hamlet, spawning a lifelong love of Shakespeare that would mold his authoritative delivery.

The first TV Wilson remembers watching was Saturday afternoon wrestling from the back of a neighbor's tractor. The signal was too weak to reach the valley, so they had to drag a generator up on the ridge.

Wilson was transfixed by the medium. He'd hold a hairbrush like a microphone and talk into the mirror, reading newspapers aloud because he liked the way it sounded. When NBC paired Chet Huntley and David Brinkley for its coverage of the 1956 political conventions, Johnny Wilson might have been the only teenager in Big Stone Gap who couldn't look away.

Wilson joined WLSD as a sophomore in high school and relished every word he got on the air. But the town could only take him so far. "Nobody came out of here and went anywhere to work in broadcasting," he said. He had to go someplace bigger, starting with college in Richmond.

As a high school senior, he wrote a letter to a hero, asking what he should study and was stunned when, days later, he got a reply on CBS letterhead.

First, learn something about life, the letter read. Journalism will come. Lots of history. English. Do not neglect arts and humanities. Good luck. Edward R. Murrow.

• • •

In Richmond, John met Mary K., a fellow singer, and had two boys, Paul and Mark. In Norfolk came Patrick.

You might think three boys from the big city — boys who lived for art, music and the theater — would dread their frequent family trips to rural Appalachia. Yet the childhood they describe there sounds almost impossibly bucolic — hiking in the woods, fishing and golfing with their grandfather, catching crawdads in the creek.

"Paradise," Mark calls it.

"Our Disneyland," Paul said.

John, meanwhile, became a big deal at WBTV in Charlotte, a bigger deal at KSDK in St. Louis, an even bigger deal at WTSP-Ch. 10 in St. Petersburg, that Hamlet-honed baritone leading the way.

"There were two people growing up in school who we were taught to emulate," Big Stone Gap native Adriana Trigiani said. One was future Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, a native son. "The other was Johnny Wilson."

It was Trigiani who, in 2000, put the town on the map when she published her debut novel, Big Stone Gap, about a single woman experiencing a crisis of family identity in the late 1970s. Colorful and breezy, the book cracked the New York Times bestseller list, spawning a line of sequels.

Trigiani, a veteran TV writer, initially wrote Big Stone Gap as a screenplay, not a book. Yet for years it looked like a film might never get made, partly because of to her insistence that it be filmed in her hometown.

But she did have one ace up her sleeve: Patrick Wilson.

The Trigianis and the Wilsons go way back, long enough that Adriana remembers when Paul, Mark and Patrick "were just three really handsome boys." As Patrick's star rose in Hollywood, she and Mary K. would swap whispered emails about him playing the film's male lead, Jack "Mac" MacChesney.

In 2013, Patrick starred in a pair of low-budget horror movies, The Conjuring and Insidious: Chapter 2, that grossed a combined $220 million in the United States. Receipts like that can let an actor exhale, pursue a passion project instead of a paycheck. That's when he finally said yes.

"It's not about any one person," Trigiani said, "but I will tell you for certain we wouldn't be talking had Patrick not agreed to play the lead."

Big Stone Gap is a film about roots, about family, so how could Trigiani, a first-time director, not cast Patrick's brother Paul as Lyle Makin, a devilishly handsome lush? How could she not cast Patrick's wife, Dagmara, as Elizabeth Taylor, who in the book rolls through town with her husband, future Virginia Sen. John Warner? How could she not ask Mark, a lifelong musician, to grab his guitar and pick bluegrass in the background? How could she not have Mary K. and the six Wilson grandchildren come in to film scenes?

And how could she not write a role for John Wilson?

• • •

As much as John loved Shakespeare, his acting experience since college was limited to a little community theater after leaving the Army. Once, while working as an anchor and news director of a station in Virginia, a friend asked him to play a reporter in the pilot episode of a new cop series. Wilson, sensing it might look bad for a journalist to moonlight as an actor, turned down Kojak.

Though the Wilsons frequently collaborate — John and Mark on WTVT; John and Mary K. as a singing duo; Paul, Mark and Patrick in a rock band — they all keep a respectful distance from Patrick's film career. Yet everyone knew Big Stone Gap was a once-in-a-lifetime project — a chance to film a movie with the entire family, in the town they all grew up in.

"I'd say this experience happens rarely," Patrick said, "but this experience never happens."

Over three weeks of filming, everyone bunked at the old Wilson place, reconnecting with their roots and one another. Patrick and Paul hiked into the woods to find their great-great-grandfather's long-lost gravestone. Relatives emerged from all over to marvel at the hubbub. At one point, a local extra, one of many hired for the shoot, showed up for a scene wearing his own tuxedo, purchased years earlier for $5 at a church yard sale. The suit's previous owner? The late family patriarch, Paul J. Wilson.

"It was an emotional reconnect like nothing I had ever expected," said Paul, who runs an advertising and media company in St. Petersburg.

Big Stone Gap is not Watchmen, The A-Team or any of Patrick's more celebrated films. It will not see a wide release for months, if at all. But making it, and seeing it on the big screen, had an impact that Patrick won't soon forget. "Whether you know about Big Stone Gap or not, it's a movie about home and family and wherever your ties are," he says. "The only downside to this is that we stayed in our grandparents' house, and they couldn't be here to see it."

John's cameo comes near the end, in the background of a party scene, wearing his newsroom-best navy, in frame not only with Patrick, but Paul, too.

The film debut of John Wilson, the man with more than 18,600 hours of live television under his belt, lasts no more than 30 wordless seconds.

• • •

Two days after the premiere in Charlottesville, John is back in Big Stone Gap. It has been a whirlwind week: Election Day, the movie, the announcement that Mark will take his place at Fox. A few quiet days — his last before retirement — are in order.

"The closer I get to home, the farther away everything else gets," he said. "We're under such pressure to produce whatever it is that we're doing on a daily basis that you get back in the mountains, it's like somebody's unplugged the clock."

The Wilson house is 74 years old but well preserved. When John retires, he and Mary K. will spend more time here — not just days, she says, but "weeks at a time."

Few traces of the town he grew up in still exist. WLSD? Gone. The station moved up the road to Norton; John's first newsroom is empty, for sale.

Big Stone Gap High School, John's alma mater? Folded the year after he graduated.

That letter from Edward R. Murrow? Lost in one move or another.

Paul J. and Carol Wilson? They, too, are gone — Paul J. died in 1999; Carol in 2013.

John often contemplated what might become of his childhood home once his parents passed on. He's lived in St. Petersburg since 1981, longer than anyplace else, forging deep ties and friendships. Were his memories worth maintaining a place in the mountains?

He put the question to the boys: Is it time to sell the house?

The boys conferred. And their answer was emphatic.

"There's so much history there on that one road," Patrick said, "you kind of feel like, Man, I don't want to let that go."

"I'm sure Mom and Dad, eventually, the upkeep may be a little bit much for them," Mark said, "and when that happens, that's when Paul, Patrick and I just say, 'We'll take care of this for you, and then we'll eventually take it over.' . . . It's going to be ours forever."

Fathers live to hear such words from their sons. "That was a reaffirmation for me that it was really important," Wilson said. "And I guess that's what began to get to me in the movie, about how dear it is to my heart, this little town that was so important in guiding my career through 50 years of television and broadcasting."

And here we see why Big Stone Gap is as much John Wilson's film as anyone's. There on the screen is one son, dusted in coal and confessing his love to Ashley Judd. There is another, stealing scenes as a charismatic drunk. There is another, playing his guitar in a re-creation of the town's annual outdoor drama. There is his wife, his daughter-in-law, his grandchildren, his friends, flitting in and out of scenery so familiar it feels fixed in time, like a photograph.

"They know how important it is for us to come home," he said. "This is always going to be home."

Contact Jay Cridlin at (727) 893-8336 or cridlin@tampabay.com. Follow @JayCridlin.