Growing up, "Hallmark Hall of Fame" represented the gold standard of what we would call today "family values" television, except that TV then rarely carried anything threatening to those values. Today, Hallmark's commitment to quality television hasn't change; it even has its own cable channel, which shows films that affirm the values most of us hold dear.
This Easter Sunday, CBS will mark the 60th anniversary of the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" with a film called "Beyond the Blackboard." It's one of those "based on a true story" projects about a young woman (Stacey Bess) who desperately wants to teach, but finds there are no jobs available in her Salt Lake City school district. There is, however, an experimental program and Bess (played by Emily VanCamp), eagerly accepts the job. There's a problem, though. She is to teach homeless children in a rundown warehouse.
Stacey shows up for her first day of work wearing pumps and carrying a leather briefcase and gets a fast reality check.
Based on Bess' memoir, "Nobody Don't Love Nobody," the film could easily veer off into a political diatribe and a call for more government spending on education. It is a tribute to the restraint of the creators that it does not. What it does depict is the power of one person to make a difference in other people's lives, not with government funds, but with the currency of a loving and dedicated heart.
This storyline originally put me off. It is drenched in estrogen and Stacey's husband Greg, played by Steve Talley, seems largely passive, even irrelevant, except that he keeps getting her pregnant. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that "wholesome TV" takes some getting used to. The mind must purge itself of the sexual and the tawdry to make room for the good.
In an interview on the "Blackboard" set in Albuquerque, the real Stacey Bess recalls her first day with the homeless children: "The gentleman who greeted me at the shelter looked me up and down and all his body language was saying, 'You don't belong here. This isn't gonna work out.' And the truth is, the chance of my surviving at the beginning were just about nil. I mean, I'd never been exposed to poverty."
Stacey Bess is no "do-gooder," who comes to a place she might never knowingly want to visit and then leaves after a few days. This is commitment. This is real. This matters, because she has mattered in the lives of others.
"What's the bottom line take away from this story?" she is asked.
"I think the Number One thing that Greg (her husband) and I have truly learned is step out of your comfort zone, reach out to people, you don't have to be sophisticated to love somebody, you don't have to have grand skills, you don't have to have a degree, you just have to want to care just a little bit further than what's expected. We're not exceptional people. ... I just happened to have an opportunity to help some young people, and I just happened to have a husband and children who supported me -- and really, we did it together."
That attitude has inspired "Hallmark Hall of Fame" for 60 years. One hopes that in our cynical and hyper-politicized age, it will last for another 60.