Walt's Last Gift to Our Children

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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I was talking to a group of college students recently about Walt Disney. Each year I do so, it gets harder and harder because the audience never grew up watching Walt Disney every week on television like I did. They don't have that same emotional connection to Walt.

Some of them think that Walt was like Betty Crocker or Colonel Sanders. Either he was completely made up as a corporate icon or he was an actual person who was just a media mascot but never had any day-to-day, hands-on connection with the company.

To them, Walt simply isn't real. So I begin by telling them that Walt never graduated high school, was a chain smoker and that vice ended his life much too soon, had a terrible temper to the point that his employees even came up with the phrase "bear suit" to describe his foul moods, and that he was hopelessly physically uncoordinated when it came to any type of sports.

I point out that Walt was exactly like you and me. He worried about paying bills, about his family, about his health, about going bankrupt. He was very, very real. Yet, 40 years after his death, he still has a greater impact on our lives and the world than any U.S. President or popular celebrity from that same time period.

He was an extraordinary ordinary man.

That may sound corny and I don't care. Many times Walt himself declared that "We're selling corn. And I like corn," as he did in an interview in the 1960s. I like corn as well, especially if it is being sold by Walt Disney.

Speaking of the '60s, I was re-organizing some of my Disney-related magazines (an ongoing process that has been happening for decades) and there was a magazine with a fire engine red cover and a headline that screamed: "Now It Can Be Told! Walt Disney's Last Great Gift To Our Children!"

Was it an old tabloid magazine like Confidential? No, it was actually a women's magazine devoted to "the friendship club for homemakers" entitled Lady's Circle magazine (Vol. 3 No. 9) from April 1967.

Editor Jean Ramer wrote in that issue's editorial: "This is the time, too, to express our thanks to a great man in whose heart Spring lived always—Walt Disney. He is no longer here to receive our tribute, and certainly, during his lifetime, he was showered with every honor human beings can bestow. But only one was most meaningful to him—the smile, the laughter of a child. And above all, he wanted that happiness to continue."

Not only do I agree with that statement but I wish I had written it, although I don't think Walt aimed his many talents at just children but the child in all of us. "I guess I'm an optimist," Walt said, "Maybe it's because I can still be amazed at the wonders of the world." He aimed at that childlike sense of wonder not the selfishness, humiliation and fear that are characteristic of many childhoods.

I don't think I have looked at this magazine for decades and re-reading the article written by Melisande Meade, I thought I would share just an excerpt from it because it ties in with a point I wanted to make to those college students.

So here is the excerpt and then I will try to make my point after you've had a chance to read it:

Walt Disney died last December.

He died as he had lived—with dignity and courage and deep concern about a hundred million children. Today's children. Tomorrow's children.

American children, Russian children, African children, Siamese children, Chinese children.

Race, color, or politics never entered his thoughts where children were concerned; instead, he always tried to point out that those things really didn't matter to children.

It's a small world after all.

Young visitors to the New York World's Fair during 1964 will never forget the exhibit that Walt conceived for a soft drink company on behalf of UNICEF in which doll-children of every nation in the world sang that song in their own tongue as the listener was propelled by boat through a virtual fairyland.

Even hardhearted adults were deeply moved. It was impossible not to be.

With imagination and charm and enchantment, Walt implanted a thought, a message, a philosophy in the minds of those who saw (and will continue to see) this particular exhibit; a philosophy more effective than a thousand lectures or acts of Congress.

This was part of the legacy. There was so much more.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was President he called Walt "a genius as a creator of folklore whose sympathetic attitude toward life has helped our children develop a clean and cheerful view of humanity with all its frailties and possibilities for good."

And when he received an honorary degree from Yale, its president said, "He has accomplished something that has defied all the efforts and experiments of the laboratories in zoology and biology. He has given animals souls."

A man named Walt Disney died last December. But a mouse named Mickey is immortal and can go on forever spreading joy to generation after generation. A man named Walt Disney died last December. But those many characters he created will live forever bringing laughter and joy to untold millions.

"I guess I'm an optimist," Walt said, "Maybe it's because I can still be amazed at the wonders of the world."

A man named Walt Disney died in December 1966 but "160 acres of happiness" in Anaheim, California remain and promise to enchant the children of the children who visited during the past eleven years of its existence.

Walt could have stopped with Disneyland. But he thought of all the children unable to make the trip to California and so he brought Disneyland to them via the medium of television. He gave them more than just electronic visits to the park. The show in turn went on to become Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, a shining gem among the tarnished junk of family TV viewing.

A man named Walt Disney died last December but he is alive every Sunday evening and his wonderful world of color will continue even longer if mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers demand it continue.

When Walt became ill a year ago, he made plans to insure the realization of many other projects he had begun: the animated version of the Jungle Book, several other delightful films, the construction of a new Disneyland to be built in Florida, the completion of a ski resort he was developing in the Sequoia National Forest. But the dearest, perhaps, was spearheading the development of the vast University of the Arts called Cal Arts.

He also contributed, without compensation, without publicity, a series of animated films designed to combat Illiteracy in undeveloped nations, because he firmly believed "animated films are the most versatile and stimulating of all teaching facilities. The job of the animated film is not to take the place of the teacher but to help the teacher."

A few years ago, a writer summed up Walt Disney by saying:

"I discovered his secret. He is a man who makes dreams come true. He makes us believe we can make ours come true. A Disney picture is a Disney dream come true. If sometimes it has a bit of a nightmare, well, all dreams have a bit of a nightmare. Disney shows you they are unimportant. You wake up from them and Good has triumphed over Evil. He's remolded a world not only near to his heart's desire but to yours and mine. Disney has never been afraid to live with the truth that time and space are relative; that none of us is young or old. There is timing, but no time; space but no distance. Life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate."

A man named Walt Disney died at 9:35 a.m. on December 15, 1966 at St. Joseph's Hospital in Los Angeles. He left behind him a wife Lily to whom he'd been married for forty-one years and two daughters and a one hundred million dollar a year Empire. He was sixty-five years old and he died of cancer. That was the reality of it. The medical report attributed his death to an "acute circulatory collapse".

Cancer is a harsh word. It's not the kind of word to be associated with the spinner of dreams. It's not the way in which Walt Disney should have gone.

So let's just imagine that Mary Poppins and Peter Pan flew down and whisked him off to some Never-Never Land where "there is no time, no distance; where life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate."

A place from which he can always look down and smile as he watched the children of tomorrow benefiting from the gifts he has left them.

I really enjoyed this article even though it never definitively answered what Walt's "final" gift was. I guess the implication is that the gift was everything that Walt did or maybe that he arranged for the gifts he gave to keep giving even after he passed away.

Anyway, the point I wanted to make to those college students was that Walt Disney the man passed away. He was real. He was as frail and foolish as any of us. He was a good man, a good husband, a good father and a good friend. He tried very hard and he didn't always succeed. He really did want people to be happy and he had no secret agenda.

However, Walt Disney the legend has never died but grown larger than life each passing year so that he has become like a Paul Bunyan or a Johnny Appleseed or a Pecos Bill where it has become difficult to tell where the man ends and the story begins. Like any legend, it has become popular sport to try to chisel away at the greatness to try to discover some hidden flaw to make the legend seem less imposing.

But you know what? After years of mudslinging and attempts to find the dark side, the legend continues to grow and one of the reasons is that Walt really did give us gifts that keep on giving and continues to inspire us to do the same.