By Josette Keelor
Onalee McGraw thought her chances of winning Turner Classic Movies' Ultimate Fan contest were pretty slim. But she entered anyway, "for the fun of it."
Of all the possible applicants, only one would win, she said, "and most people would not think that they could be that good at it."
"Imagine my surprise when an email comes in sometime the first of December," she remembered. "It just pops up and it says 'Congratulations Onalee, you are invited to be one of 20 guest programmers at Turner Classic Movies and introduce a favorite movie with TCM host Robert Osborne.' And details to follow, just, you know, 'send us a yes or no answer.' This was incredible."
At 1:45 a.m. on Thursday, TCM will show McGraw introducing the 1957 film "12 Angry Men," one she said holds special interest to her because of its theme of fighting for justice.
"We were asked to submit 10 of our favorite films," she said, "And then they chose the one out of the 10 that fit with their programming needs."
"So imagine again my surprise when they chose '12 Angry Men' out of the 10 for me to introduce with Robert Osborne."
A lifelong fan of classic movies, McGraw, 74, was 7 years old when she started a love of movies.
Now she uses films as educational tools for children and teens through the Educational Guidance Institute, a nonprofit she founded, drawing many of her ideas from films shown on TCM. She included that fact in her submission video, "Onalee McGraw on Sidney Poitier's 'No Way Out,'' which she posted to YouTube.
"In sharing this film with high school and college students," she says in the video, "I have found that a contemporary conversation about racial conflict can take place because the story elevates and teaches the universal nature of human dignity."
Recently reflecting on that concept, she explained that "No Way Out" and "12 Angry Men" share similar themes.
"True justice depends on the universal value of human dignity," she said.
The film "12 Angry Men" was her all-time most successful pilot of a film, when a group of middle and high school students gathered to watch it at Christendom College in Front Royal.
There, she said, after a short introduction, the children watched the film without once picking up their cell phones.
"And this is not only during the film but in the immediate aftermath," McGraw said. "It was huge."
"This is the most exciting thing that happened in the pilot," she said.
Another memorable moment happened in 1999, when her program was still taking form and she showed the film "High Noon" to great success at a detention home in Danville.
"That is what kept me going," she said. "It just wasn't easy to persist because a lot of people didn't think that the young people would want to sit and watch these films. There was just a bias there, but the bias is mainly from the older generation."
"Robert Osborne said the young people are really discovering the classic films," she said.
The 20th anniversary celebration on TCM will take place each weeknight next week, beginning Monday at 8 p.m. with 1948's "The Naked City," co-hosted by TCM Ultimate Fan Contest winner Tiffany Vazquez, of New York.
McGraw said the youngest of the 20 is a 10-year-old Charlie Chaplin fan Shane Fleming, also of New York, who will introduce the 1936 film "Modern Times."
They all met Osborne at TCM in Atlanta in January when he introduced himself and said, "We knew you guys were out there."
At least half of the winners are from New York or Los Angeles, "surprise, surprise," McGraw said.
"I'm very proudly Onalee McGraw from Front Royal, Va."
Watch TCM's lineup of guest programmers beginning at 8 p.m., each night April 7-11. For more information, visit www.tcm.com. For more information about the Educational Guidance Institute, visit http://educationalguidanceinstitute.com/.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com