Loyal viewer says farewell to a friend

Yvonne Wenger

I am not interested in celebrity gossip. I pay no attention to who is having whose baby and couldn't care less about the latest Starbucks spotting.

I have probably only paged through People magazine twice in my life. I prefer the stories of everyday people, whose lives and struggles I can relate to and learn from.

So I was disappointed when I read last week that two of the final three episodes of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" were centered on a star-studded goodbye. But as I was watching the shows play back on my DVR, I felt so inspired and moved and elevated, the way I usually feel after spending an hour with Oprah.

For the farewell special, one of the youngest Oprah fans told the mogul that it was because of her that she loves to read. Another said she used to watch the show with her mother before she passed away and she kept up the tradition after her death; her mother would have wanted her to continue to learn from Oprah, the teen said.

Like those girls, I feel part of the Oprah generation. I was 6 when she came on the air. I didn't have cable growing up, but rabbit ears would pick up her show just fine.

She has been a great influence in my life. I have a memory of the 1988 show that Oprah aired with white supremacists. Through that forum, I was exposed to something I never knew existed from my perspective as a protected and loved child of white, middle-class parents enrolled in a small, insulated Catholic school. No doubt that show opened up a dialogue between me and my parents, the kind that would have provided a life lesson to help shape who I am today.

I was reminded of that show recently when Oprah welcomed back two of the guests to share their changes of heart. Likewise, at the beginning of her farewell season, Oprah returned to the small West Virginia city where she broadcast a show in 1987 about the controversy over a local gay man living with AIDS and his trip to the community swimming pool. That man, Mike Sisco, has since died. No one except Oprah could have provided that type of insight into how hearts and minds have changed -- and remained the same -- over my own lifetime.

I remained a loyal viewer all these years because I've learned so much from Oprah. I've watched her for her ability to tell a story. I've watched her because I admire her acceptance and compassion and empathy and open heart. I've watched her because I love the strength she has to be honest and vulnerable.

She has satisfied my curiosity, whether it's information on how to find the right bra, a glimpse into the life of a transgender person or a chance to share the wisdom of a late 13-year-old boy who is being considered for beatification to start the process of becoming a saint.

Sure, Oprah herself is now a celebrity. But, to me, she is so much more. She is a teacher and a storyteller. She has changed the world. Her vision for women and an evolved society built around acceptance and love has for years been broadcast in countries around the globe.

I've donated to her causes. I've read books from her list of favorites. I've found inspiration in her ability to live out the goals she set for herself, no mind to her impoverished upbringing as a black child in the rural South before civil rights. I've cheered her on as she faced her battles with weight loss. I've found strength in her advice as I follow my own path toward happiness and success.

Her legacy will live on through her school for girls in South Africa, the messages she shares on her new network, OWN, and in the hearts, like mine, that she touched. It's a curious thing, how you can call someone you've never met a friend.

Yvonne Wenger covers politics and state government for The Post and Courier from the paper's Columbia bureau. Reach her at ywenger@postandcourier.com or 803-799-9051.