Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Walt Disney's Final Public Appearance

By Dave Mason

In the third chapter of his four-part series on the lasting legacy of Walt Disney, historian Dave Mason provides a little-known backstory on the event which would prove to be Walt Disney’s final public appearance. Join us today as we travel back in time to Tuesday, November 1, 1966 and revisit Walt in Williamsburg, Virginia for what would go down in history as his final appearance...

 Though his doctors had uncovered troubling signals within the preliminary findings of medical tests in late 1966, they nonetheless encouraged Walt Disney to maintain his current schedule and to honor as many of his existing commitments as he felt he could. They indicated that they would contact him for a follow-up report within a few days.

On that basis, Walt, Lilly, their daughter Sharon and her husband Bob Brown, boarded Walt’s Grumman Gulfstream aircraft on October 29 and they made their way across the country to Williamsburg, Virginia. Though their daughter Diane and her husband Ron Miller had been invited to travel with them, the upcoming Halloween holiday brought them to remain home in Encino to celebrate with their young children and to allow their school attendance to continue without the interruption of an added family vacation. It proved to be a decision that Diane would ponder many times in the coming years.

Walt and Lillian Disney aboard Walt’s Grumman Gulfstream aircraft. (c) Disney

The occasion for this trip represented another of the priorities that Walt felt strongly about throughout his lifetime. His support for environmental organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation dated back several decades. As his company began to develop plans for a new resort at Mineral King in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, he was invited to attend the American Forestry Association’s annual conference to be held October 30 thru November 2, 1966 in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Having also visited Colonial Williamsburg several times previously, the opportunity seemed filled with purpose, were it not for the increasing pain that Walt had been experiencing. Still, he pressed forward with the chance to meet with friends like Gus Eyssell, his childhood friend from Kansas City, one of the trustees of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and also President of Radio City Music Hall in New York. While at Williamsburg, Walt could also experience once again the history and traditions of the American colonies and of the unique pageantry that brought millions of visitors to the eastern United States. An example of Walt’s far-reaching influence would be realized when George P. Carroll, Colonial Williamsburg’s Fife and Drum Corps director, would be remembered even five years after Walt’s passing as Carroll was then recruited to serve as a choral director and show coordinator when Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

Williamsburg was also well known as host to the College of William & Mary (second oldest college in the United States; chartered in 1693). On a scouting trip for a potential film project in 1961, Walt’s party of twelve visited the resort’s popular King’s Arms Tavern to share a meal together.

King's Arms Tavern

Making their way to “Dining Room One” the group was seated around one of the room’s largest tables with Walt and Lillian Disney seated at each end of the long table. Moments later, Walt was pleasantly surprised when one of the servers in period costume stepped forward and introduced himself as Ken Lounsbery, son of animator John Lounsbery, one of Walt’s “nine old men.” Upon learning that Ken was attending William & Mary, Walt called to Lilly at the opposite end of the table, “Why, it’s Kenny. Lillian, look here, it’s Johnny’s son!” Though they had previously met only a few times at the Disney family’s Holmby Hills railroad family gatherings, and occasionally when he worked summers and holidays in the Art Props Department at the studio, the brief reunion was a moment that the younger Lounsbery would always remember fondly.


On this occasion in 1966, the American Forestry Association had selected Walt Disney to receive the Association’s “Distinguished Service Award.” As such, they once again had the benefit of support from the Disney organization in providing an exclusive “Walt Disney Film Festival” for the conference. The featured films included:

•    “Winter Storage” (1949) – A Donald Duck cartoon short featuring Chip ‘n Dale
•    “Bambi” (1942)
•    “Yellowstone Cubs” (1963)
•    “A Fire Called Jeremiah” (seen below) – December 3, 1961 episode of “The Wonderful World of Color”

Apart from the daily field trips throughout the area, the conference gatherings were held in the Virginia Room of the Williamsburg Lodge and Conference Center (310 South England Street).  Opened in 1939, the hotel has long since been a popular destination for guests visiting the Williamsburg area. Renovations and expansion of the property began in 2003 and it continues to be a popular site for visitor and convention planners.

May 4, 1966 photograph of the Virginia Room (site of the Nov. 1 event to honor Walt Disney) for a testimonial dinner hosted by the College of William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law.

The American Forestry Association’s tribute to Walt Disney took place at 7:00 P.M. on the evening of November 1, 1966. The informal dinner opened with an invocation from Maurice K. Goddard, Director of the American Forestry Association and Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters. In addition to his lifelong service in preservation of the nation’s forests, Goddard served during WWII under the direct command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and was a recipient of both the Legion of Merit award and the Bronze Star Medal. In light of the physical battle that Walt knew he was facing, it’s not difficult to imagine that the brave American standing before him held Walt Disney’s highest regard even as Goddard prayed over the evening’s gathering. Following an address from Dr. Harlan Hatcher, President of the University of Michigan, the President of the American Forestry Association then stepped to the microphone to pay tribute to the evening’s honored guest.

Peter Watzel presents award to Walt Disney

In his presentation of what would prove to be the final major award of Walt Disney’s lifetime, Peter F. Watzek shared these words:

“Tell me a story” is the age-old bedtime request with which every parent is thoroughly conversant and many of the choice moments of parenthood are involved therein. Of the man we honor here tonight it may be said in all truthfulness that he is probably the greatest story teller in the history of the civilized world. Parents reach their small broods with their favorite tales, but this successor of the Storytellers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen is a sort of second parent to millions from Bangkok to Nome, to whom Bambi and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are for real. Thanks to his genius – his never-failing wholesomeness and sensitivity – and the communications marvels he has helped perfect, he has animated for millions both the old stories and many new ones of his own creation in a manner that is both meaningful and entertaining. He loves wild places and wild things and knows their value. He knows that if those things are to survive they must have a special niche in the hearts of people and he has found that niche. Thanks to his magic, conservation is for real today for children who still listen to stories. He has made conservation dynamic and he has made it exciting. As a result it will never be erased from the consciousness of those young people who have been exposed to his stories. Few honors remain that may be bestowed on this storyteller par excellence. To the long list we are proud to add one more. Walt Disney, The American Forestry Association salutes you! In presenting this Distinguished Service Award, we do so with the conviction that no man in all human history has done more to instill love of animals, forests and all wild things in the hearts of generations of young people and adults. The world is truly a better place because of your presence in it.”

As he arose from his seat to accept the award, Walt Disney shared with the receptive audience that both he and his colleagues in the Disney organization wanted to “pay tribute to all the nameless people who have shared our dream.” While no one at the dinner could have understood the significance of those words, they carried a deeply held sincerity that continues to echo across the years.

Those in attendance at the tribute may have sometimes found it difficult to tell who was honoring who as Walt praised the “pioneer voice of The American Forestry Association that 91 years ago was a voice crying in the wilderness. But the government and people everywhere had to listen. The government went into action. And,” he added, “your voice still persists and it must continue to persist. For The American Forestry Association is the conservation conscience of the American people. The government can’t do the job alone. So I salute you on your 91 years of accomplishment.”

Though Walt had initially planned to share from a prepared text, he chose instead to speak from the heart. He shared that in his travels throughout the globe, he felt a “kinship with any man who looks with awe on the majesty of nature.” Walt then added that any accomplishment in that regard is due to “the help of organizations like your own who want no credit for their work.”

In the days leading up to Walt's 1966 visit to Williamsburg, the San Diego Zoo sent a delegation to the Walt Disney Studio to honor Walt with "The Albert Award" (named after the zoo's famed resident, "Albert", a male lowland Gorilla). The bronze statue was created by Southern California sculptor Helen Webster Jensen (1896 - 1990). Walt Disney was among those who were honored with the Zoo's 50th Anniversary tribute "for major and lasting contributions to the San Diego Zoo and to the cause of wildlife conservation." Here, Walt is pictured receiving "The Albert Award" with Sheldon Campbell (the zoo's public relations director) and Albert Eugene Trepte (president of the zoo's board of trustees). Founded on October 2, 1916, the Zoological Society of San Diego is now celebrating their 100th Anniversary year.

In describing his career at the Walt Disney Studio, he said “we do not preach… our first task is to entertain.” He noted that the entertainment produced at the studio was carried out by following accepted conservation principles.

“I do feel conservation should not be regarded as an end in itself.  We conserve our forests to use them – but use them wisely – in the realization of a dream.”

Walt Disney concluded his remarks that night by briefly addressing his hopes for the Mineral King project, where the “wilderness is unspoiled and we intend to keep it that way.” He expressed his desire to make it possible for people to see and enjoy the forest without allowing automobiles within the valley area.  So positive were the leaders of the AFA in regard to the project that their vice president, Charles Connaughton even commented that it was highly likely a future Annual Meeting of the AFA would be held at Mineral King. Unfortunately, the world will never know whether Walt Disney would have been able to bring that dream to fruition. Without Walt’s guiding influence, the best minds in both commerce and government were unable to find the necessary common ground regarding the proposed recreational development.

And so the public life of the twentieth century’s most celebrated storyteller came to its unexpected conclusion. These represented the final words that Walt Disney would speak in a public setting.  Within hours after the evening’s tribute, the Disney family had boarded the Gulfstream for their return to California. The next day Walt received the report of the tumor growing on his left lung and surgery for its removal was scheduled for Monday, November 7.

Other more qualified voices have spoken about the events of the subsequent weeks as Walt Disney and his family faced his final days. However, for many of us, we’ll simply choose to remember the man who, in his final address, reserved his highest regard for “all who have shared our dream.”

Perhaps Old Yeller’s Travis Coates said it best:  “… you won’t never see another one like him.”

With respect and admiration…

Walter Elias Disney

December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966

Chapter 1: The Story of Walt Disney’s Final Official Visit to Disneyland 

Chapter 2: Walt Disney’s Final Visit to Disneyland - A Medal of Honor Family Remembers

Chapter 4: Forever Remembered: The Lasting Influence of Walt Disney 


Dave Mason was born in Anaheim, California within a month of Disneyland’s grand opening premiere and dedication. Growing up in a community that celebrated every success of their adopted hometown “park", the stories of his family members serving as carpenters on Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle or sales clerks at the souvenir shops on Main Street, U.S.A. would provide for tales as wonderful as those found in Disney’s best storybooks. In fact, when Disneyland launched their summer fireworks extravaganza for the first time, the back yard of his family home on Anaheim’s Haster Street would serve as the perfect location to receive the best benefits of the Disney experience without having to buy an admission ticket.

Today, Dave Mason serves as the founder of SaturdaysToys.com, launched on April 1, 1994 (yes, “April Fools Day”). Among the earliest entrepreneurs to make the leap into internet sales, Dave joined a handful of Disney enthusiasts in offering auctions on AuctionWeb (later to become known as eBay). In addition, Dave is honored to serve as the Director of Development with the all-volunteer team of The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases (www.AnnetteConnection.com). He is a founding member of both the Walt Disney Family Museum and a global Disney research organization known as The Hyperion Historical Alliance.

You can find all of Dave's articles here.

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful Dave. Brought tears to my eyes. Wonderfully and eloquently worded, I just loved this article.