A recent episode of Home Town showed a young woman getting set up in a beautiful home in the historic district of Laurel after her husband died tragically and unexpectedly. Kendall Simoneau’s story tugged at the heartstrings of people across the country — no, the world — on the top-rated show on HGTV.
Most people have doubts about the authenticity of “reality” shows, and with good reason. So many of them are scripted or framed within set-up situations. That’s the well-documented rule, not the exception. We don’t have any special insight into the inner workings of Home Town, but we do know that the people and places are real, and the show’s popularity is well-deserved.
The name of Kendall’s episode caught my attention. It was called “A Laurel Hug.” It may sound cheesy to those who don’t live somewhere with a strong sense of community, but that part is 100 percent real, too. I know because I’ve experienced that Laurel hug (though not necessarily from the same folks on the show) when my baby daughter Ava died in the summer of 2009, two years after I made the choice to make this my hometown. Those hugs have continued, in good times and bad, too.
Kendall’s story wasn’t the only thing about that episode that put a lump in my throat. No, the house she moved into put some happy mist in these eyes, too. That’s because the home belonged to my former landlords Sam and Martha McCraney, one of the sweetest couples ever.
Their marriage was a stark contrast to what brought us together. Divorce forced me to have to rent for the first time in my life, and when I expressed interest in finding a downtown apartment (all were full at the time), Bo Bounds at Community Bank introduced me to Mr. McCraney. He had a loft over his clothing store Smith & Sons that was a family dwelling but had been unoccupied for a while. With Bo vouching for me, Mr. McCraney showed me the apartment and it became home, a few steps from the office, for my daughter and me for about four years.
The McCraneys became more than just landlords to us. He was the quintessential Southern gentleman, always collecting rent checks in person — at the office, at the loft or in the kitchen that was on TV. He always asked if we needed anything, and we talked about what was going on in the community. He’d get Mrs. Martha to drive him around downtown almost daily so he could keep tabs on progress. They even insisted that we go stay in their Gulf Shores beach condo one week when they were unable to go.
The loft itself also brings up another direct connection to the show. After getting set to move in, I suffered a compound fracture in my left leg in a motorcycle crash. The only way up to the living quarters was via a looming spiral staircase. After a month in hospitals, I took a photo of those stairs — described as my Mount Everest — and showed them to my physical therapist. “I have to be able to climb this in six weeks,” I said before even graduating from a wheelchair to a walker. It was presented as a challenge to my therapist as much as to myself. The therapist/hero who made it happen was Dr. Phil Rasberry — Erin Napier’s father. Not only was I able to make my way up there, I carried almost every box up to the loft myself, and on moving day, one of the men who helped out the most was Erin’s close cousin and back-by-popular-demand columnist Mark Clark. Her mother Karen is one of the most talented columnists we’ve ever had, too, going back to our days as The ReView of Jones County.
Her words and wit oozed Southernness, from the heart. Just this month, I was sad to learn she is suffering from coronary artery disease, so that talented heart is in need of surgery. That news came shortly after Ben and Erin’s 3-year-old daughter Helen broke the tibia and fibula in her left leg — the same break I experienced. It’s way different, though.
When our children are hurt, we parents feel so helpless, even though the little ones handle things much better than most grownups. There’s no doubt she’s in good hands. Dr. Phil might come out of retirement for this one, and if he doesn’t, Uncle Clark can get her back to toddling in no time. Then again, everyone I dealt with at the South Central Regional Medical Center Wellness Center during my rehab was a perfect combination of professional and personable.
A recent episode of “Home Town” featured Erin’s uncle Danny Rasberry, the good Dr. Phil’s brother. He was one of the pioneers of downtown reinvestment/renovation, along with our own Jim Cegielski. But I know him as the hard-working, hard-playing, generous guy who rented out Graceland and brought in top-notch entertainment for a private party that I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation a few years ago. It was a memorable night in Memphis, for sure!
One of my favorite things about “Home Town” is getting the chance to tell friends and family who aren’t from here about the real connections to the real people involved in just about every episode. I could go on and on about the connections — most good, a couple bad — to people on the show over the last five-plus years. Some people here complain about the show painting an unrealistic portrait of the town, myopically Mayberryesque.
Some of the show’s biggest supporters say that this paper paints an unrealistic portrait of the community by reporting newsworthy happenings that, fortunately, are still rare enough here to make headlines. Some people who have subscribed to the paper before moving here told us that they understood that this would be like anywhere else in America, with the same societal problems that affect every town. They didn’t expect Pleasantville (before the screen turns to color in the movie by Gary Ross, who directed “Free State of Jones” the same year “Home Town” started).
What we show is … reality. Just like the TV show is their version of reality. Both are authentic. And, interestingly, despite our different approaches, we all have the same goal with the work we do — to make this the best community it can be.
Mark Thornton is editor-in-chief of the Leader-Call. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.