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From television star to preacher
Dixie diva
Ronda Rich Aug 2015

Mama was always proud for people who pulled themselves up and did well in life. She rooted for them, bragged on them and delighted in their happiness and happenings.

In the early-1990s, a little boy from our family – my cousin’s baby – found himself co-starring on the NBC drama I’ll Fly Away. Aaron Bennett, billed then as John Aaron Bennett, was 7 years old when he was cast as the youngest son of the patriarch played by Sam Waterson. The show, named after the old hymn written by Albert E. Brumley, was short-lived — two seasons — but won every major television award from Emmys to the Humanitas to the revered Peabody.

In the astounding way that life weaves together people, the show was co-created by Josh Brand and John Falsey who gave my Tink his first script assignment (St. Elsewhere) and it aired on NBC, the network that my father-in-law had run a few years prior as its chairman and CEO. I’ll Fly Away was about a small-town Southern lawyer negotiating a path through the early Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and ‘60s. Actress, Regina Taylor, co-starred as the family’s maid, helping the motherless family.

When he was cast in the NBC drama, Mama was button-popping proud. The 7-year-old responded to his zealous fan by sending her an autographed 8x10 which he painstakingly signed in tight cursive script. She promptly taped the photo above a full length mirror on the closet door of her sewing room which ensured that every woman who tried on a dress and checked her reflection would see the star of our family.

That photo stayed taped there for almost 20 years until Mama died. When Aaron married several years ago, I traveled to Daytona Beach to represent the family. At the reception, Aaron’s grinning grandfather, Johnny, sat down beside me.

“I am so proud of that boy.” By that point, Aaron had answered the call to follow the Lord and his bride, Andrea, stood ready to join him.

“When he was 14, he got a script for a movie part,” Johnny recalled. “It wasn’t a family kind of movie. You know, sex and cussing. The language was awful. Aaron read it and then went to his mama and said, ‘I can’t do this kind of stuff and if this is what it calls for me to continue as an actor, I’m through.’ And that was that. He never acted again. Now, he’s answered the Lord’s call and I couldn’t be prouder. Wouldn’t Paw-paw be proud?”

Our grandfather was a spirit-called preacher of the mountains and, yes, he would be proud. I’m sorry that Johnny and Mama didn’t live to see all the truly important work that Aaron has done. He moved his family across country to plant a church in Portland, Ore., in one of the most un-churched states in the union. The other day, Tink and I got our own autograph from Aaron in the form of a thank you note for a contribution we made to his ministry, part of our tithe for a television project we had done together.

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