Waite’s path to acting was long and meandering. Born on June 22, 1928, in White Plains, N.Y., he served in the Marines before earning his bachelor’s degree at Bucknell. Next he became an ordained minister and spent four years as a Presbyterian pastor. After that came a stint as a book editor at Harper & Row. Then, on a friend’s suggestion, Waite tried acting school. By the early ’60s he was landing parts on Broadway.
Waite won small roles in films like Cool Hand Luke and the TV miniseries Roots. But he became a kind of national treasure as the patriarch of a Depression-era family on The Waltons, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1981. The show gained a huge following that included George H.W. Bush. As President in 1992, he said he wanted to make American families “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” In 2004, a TV Guide poll ranked Waite’s John Walton No. 3 on its list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.”
Waite, who died on Feb. 13 at 85, was a paternal figure off the air too. After three unsuccessful bids for Congress in the 1990s, he continued helping those in need through occasional preaching and, as a retired drinker, by leading drug and alcohol recovery programs. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect a good dad to do.
This appears in the March 03, 2014 issue of TIME.