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‘Gunsmoke’ stars were exceptional role models

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Posted: Saturday, January 12, 2013 12:00 am

Since I moved from Lodi to Pittsburgh five years ago, I miss my home state every day. But never do I miss Lodi more than during winter's darkest days. With a foot of snow in my yard, the Christmas and New Year festivities ended and the lopsided BCS Championship Bowl game a boring Alabama rout over outmatched Notre Dame, there's not much to do around Pittsburgh except patiently wait for Spring Training.

While surfing my 500 television channels one particularly dreary day, I rediscovered the great western series "Gunsmoke," which starred two of Hollywood's most interesting personalities, James Arness and Dennis Weaver.

Most Hollywood actors have a well-deserved reputation for being pompous phonies. But with Arness and Weaver, that was far from the case. The 6-foot, 7-inch tall Arness, who John Wayne called his favorite cowboy actor, served as an infantry rifleman in Anzio, Italy during World War II. For his bravery, Arness was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge. Arness, said by his family to be shy and a poetry lover, refused interviews and wisely banned reporters from the "Gunsmoke" set.

Weaver, who played Arness' Marshall Matt Dillon sidekick Chester Goode, was a Hollywood rarity — a true environmentalist. While many like Barbra Streisand give lip service to conservation, Weaver lived his life devoted to the cause.

Streisand has an eight bedroom, 11 bathroom, 10,000-square-foot mansion to which she recently added a full shopping mall. Weaver, on the other hand, built his famous Colorado electricity-free, self-contained home — which he named "Earthship" — with 3-foot-thick walls made of compacted dirt, 2,500 recycled tires and thousands of cans. Earthship captured winter sunlight for extra heat, with some floors providing supplemental radiant heating; the house's water is also solar-heated.

While constructing Earthship in 1989, Weaver stressed the ecological importance of using old tires. Noting that used tires have filled dumps throughout the nation and that they often catch on fire and release toxic gases, Weaver said that by building his home from them, he converted a problem into a resource and made his house "in harmony with natural things." The Earthship concept remains popular today. Pre-designed drawings and partially prefabricated construction packages are readily available on the Internet.

In 1993, Weaver and his wife Jerry founded the nonprofit Institute of Ecolonomics, a word Dennis created to illustrate the need for synergy between "a healthy ecology and a vibrant economy to create a sustainable future."

In 2003, the Institute launched the "Drive to Survive" campaign, wherein Dennis led a fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles on a road trip to Washington, D.C. The tour, intended to increase awareness about the need to reduce America's oil dependency, made stops all along the country, including pit stops in Los Angeles, Fresno, Bakersfield and Sacramento.

In 2006, Weaver passed away from cancer. The 60-acre Dennis Weaver Memorial Park in Ridgeway, Colo. remains a permanent wildlife preserve and tribute to Weaver's lifelong career as a humanitarian and environmentalist. At Weaver's funeral, Arness said that two immediately became "fast friends" and stayed that way for 50 years. Arness described Weaver's passing as "a big loss" to him.

Arness died in 2011, but not before leaving behind a generous charitable legacy. In 1968, he donated his 1,600-acre ranch in North Los Angeles County to the Brandes Institute, and his specially built 60-foot catamaran to the Sea Scouts.

A YouTube video of Weaver commenting on Earthship's construction in progress, which he called "the most exciting days of his life," is here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkbHR16FGpE.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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