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On a frigid December evening in 1992, three dozen carolers from Maple Grove

United Methodist Church huddled by a 12-foot wooden gate emblazoned with two

simple words: "The Farm." Bathed in a silvery moonlight that glittered off the

gently falling snowflakes, the heavily bundled contingent harbored a lofty

dream.

"Can I help you?" asked the man sitting in a guard house by the gate. "I

hope so," said the spokesman for the northern Indiana church. "We'd like to

sing for Oprah."

The shivering congregation waited while the guard relayed the request via

phone to television's reigning talk show queen, who was hosting a large

Christmas party in her castle-like abode. Moments later the guard delivered the

good news. "She says she'd love to hear you sing," he said, pushing a button

that slowly opened the massive gate. "Just go straight ahead."

Like Dorothy and friends shuffling down the hallway to the Great and

Powerful Oz, the excited procession of men, women and children ambled along the

tree-lined driveway and stopped in front of the entryway. Then, with vaporous

puffs of moisture billowing from their mouths, the parishioners filled the

night air with a host of holiday favorites.

As they were about to leave, the front door swung open and Oprah appeared.

She smiled, wished the visitors a heartfelt "Merry Christmas" and waved them

inside. When they filed into her spacious, toasty patio, Oprah offered them

cakes, pastries and hot cider; chatted with each member of the group; and

introduced them to her cluster of closest friends and relatives. She directed

her photographer to take some shots of the carolers (including one featuring

her long-time beau, Stedman Graham, hoisting a 5-year-old singer onto his

shoulders), then invited them inside. Not wanting to intrude, however, the

church members declined and went on their way -- bubbling like pre-schoolers

fresh from an on-the-lap chat with Santa

Today, those proud parishioners consider themselves among the most fortunate

of the 108,000 residents of La Porte County, where Oprah encounters are as

valuable as spun gold. "She was absolutely delightful," says the church's

pastor, David Widmoyer. "She was just what you'd expect: very friendly, very

open, very warm."

Such admiration is typically lavished upon Oprah Winfrey -- the megastar

whose talk show finds an audience of 20 million viewers each day. But one would

be hard-pressed to find any richer concentration of Opraholics than in this

northern Indiana county, where in autumn 1988 the daytime diva purchased a

160-acre farm five miles northwest of the tiny community of Rolling Prairie.

Since then, Winfrey watching has become a year-round sport. "Whenever she comes

into town, we hear about it almost immediately," says Susan Wiencken, manager

of administration for the Greater La Porte Chamber of Commerce. "They say, 'I

saw her at K mart,' or 'I saw her at Kroger's.' Word travels fast."

Most who spot the 41-year-old celeb do so at a distance -- as she rides her

mountain bike or jogs on the country roads encircling Saugany Lake, fingers

fresh produce at the supermarket, or sits behind the tinted windows of her

white stretch limo as it wheels through town. Even so, locals crave such

observations more than the cool summer breezes that sweep down from Lake

Michigan, and speak of them in reverent tones.

Though La Portians try to respect Oprah's passion for privacy, they also

realize that for all her homespun charm, she's the most powerful woman in

television -- and probably the wealthiest. With an estimated worth of more than

$250 million, Winfrey was listed in Forbes magazine as America's highest-paid

entertainer in 1993 (earning about $52 million that year) and the nation's

highest-paid black entertainer in 1994.

All of this gives her almost mythical status -- one reason why residents

remember each Oprah sighting with the same razor-sharp precision that they

recall the winning pitches in each of the La Porte Slicers' seven state high

school baseball championships. "It happened four years ago," recalls Scott

Resetar, manager of Mike's Country Store, situated just five miles from

Winfrey's home. "She and Stedman were looking for a gas can. They sure turned a

few heads when they walked through the door."

"I've seen her lots of times jogging down the road, usually with Stedman or

her personal trainer (Bob Greene)," says Gene Parrett, who lives just a mile

from her home. "She just wears ordinary sweat clothes, and has no entourage. If

you didn't know it was her, you'd think it was just another person."

On more than one occasion, 19-year-old Mike Chlebowski has spotted Oprah

riding her fluorescent purple mountain bike down County Road 600E. "She always

waves to me," he says with chest-swelling pride. "She's not stuck up like you'd

think she'd be."

Oprahmania is so prevalent in La Porte County that thousands of its denizens

have made the sacred pilgrimage to her opulent estate, stopping alongside the

road to feast their eyes on her sprawling mansion. The steady stream of Oprah

gazers have rubbed the grass raw, leaving several sewer-lid-size bare spots

next to the 5-foot wooden fence ringing her property.

For many out-of-town visitors, taking a gander at Oprah's acreage is a must.

When Carol Zeller's grandparents moved from Chicago to La Porte last year, they

insisted that she and her husband, Terry, make a beeline to 9252 N. County Road

600E so they could pay homage to the Winfrey homestead. Carol led the way, but

as she slowed her car and pointed her finger out the window toward the farm,

she heard a thud and felt her car lurch forward. Grandma had become so

mesmerized by the residence that she rear-ended Carol's car.

Ralph and Pat Pliske haven't been rammed from behind by any motorists, but

living a scant two miles from the Winfrey mansion makes them feel like tour

guides. "My husband's job involves entertaining people from across the world at

our home," explains Pat. "As soon as they arrive, the first thing they want to

do is drive by Oprah's estate. We all pile into the car, drive out to her

property and pull off the side of the road. After everyone takes pictures, we

pile back into the car and drive home."

Inside white fencing encircling Winfrey's property, pets and livestock roam

the pond- and stream-studded terrain. Her lot resembles a petting zoo, replete

with sheep. llamas, horses and geese. When it comes to her animals, Oprah's

heart is as soft as left-out butter: Her eight horses (including two Tennessee

walkers) live in a heated stable; her five golden retrievers reside in a heated

kennel. "Her first llama was a gift from her security guards," says 17-year-old

Heather Ludlow, whose father is Winfrey's security chief. "But she felt it was

lonely, so she bought it a companion."

Oprah is less sentimental when it comes to security. On the entry gate in

front of her home is a sign reading: "If you are not invited, please do not

pass through these gates." In the adjacent guard houses are round-the-clock

sentries and sophisticated surveillance equipment, including motion-sensing

alarms and video cameras that can search a half mile down the road in either

direction.

It's no mystery why Winfrey selected this unpretentious property in northern

La Porte County for her fortress of solitude. For one thing, it's only 70 miles

from her post, 57th-floor Chicago condo, where she lives with Stedman during

the week while taping her show. Though Oprah makes fleeting forays into La

Porte-area restaurants, gift shops and department stores and jogs eight to 10

miles each day, she spends the bulk of her weekend sequestered at her estate,

relaxing in seclusion, tending to her animals, swimming, riding her horses and

entertaining family and friends.

One step outside its perimeter, however, makes her fair game for true fans.

Like UFO enthusiasts, they lump Oprah observations into either of two

categories. The first is an Oprah Sighting, which most commonly occurs when a

lucky bystander spots her trimmed-down body jogging around Saugany Lake in her

navy blue sweats and white Nikes. A serious runner who completed a marathon

last October, Winfrey has melted 72 pounds off her 5-foot-7-inch frame -- down

to a svelte 150.

Oprah Sightings, however, are easily trumped by Oprah Encounters, which

involve an actual exchange of words. Just ask the proud parishioners of Maple

Grove United Methodist Church, who not only have seen the other side of Oprah's

front gate, but even welcomed Oprah and Stedman two years ago when the couple

showed up on Easter Sunday. They arrived just a couple of minutes after the

service had begun, turning every head in the sanctuary as they quietly slipped

into one of the back pews. The 6-foot-5 Stedman cut a striking figure in his

silver-gray suit, while Oprah was equally eye-catching in her flowing, floral

print dress and wide, white-brimmed hat.

After the service, they drew an immediate and affable crowd. "Oprah was

quiet and demure, which surprised me," recalls Widmoyer, pastor of the

90-member church. "She was friendly and shook everyone's hand, but Stedman was

very outgoing and talkative. He really took over the show."

There's nothing quiet about the Oprah that Angie Hooper knows. The

18-year-old high school senior describes the four years she worked for Oprah in

fairy tale terms. "She treated me like a mother would treat a daughter," says

Angie, who cleaned the star's house and fed and groomed her dogs. "She'd take

me shopping with her, we'd go swimming and horseback riding together, and we'd

play cards until late at night. She's a lot of fun to be with, and she'd do

anything for anybody."

For Angie, that meant sleepovers at Oprah's house, money to rent videos for

viewing on Winfrey's large-screen TV, and sometimes, even the shirt off Oprah's

back. "Once I told her I liked the Spandex outfit she was wearing," says Angie.

"Later that day she handed it to me and said, 'Here, it's yours.'"

Angie no longer works regularly on the Winfrey estate, but she remains

friends with the talk show host. Often, Oprah invites her over for a dinner of

chicken or chitlins or barbecued ribs (small portions only). Should they ever

grow apart, she can show off a passel of photos that Oprah's maids took of

Angie and Oprah together -- which she keeps in an album in her bedroom.

Most often, Oprah Encounters fall to business proprietors and employees.

Five summers ago, 22-year-old Kim Weiss was working as a cashier in Bernacchi's

grocery when Oprah and Stedman came through with a cart full of food. "The boy

sacking groceries asked, 'Paper or plastic, Miss ... uhhh ... Miss ... uhhh ...

Hey, what should I call you, anyway?'" Weiss recalls, "Oprah smiled at him and

said, 'Oprah's fine.' Then we all laughed."

Another local who recalls close encounters of the Oprah kind is James

Miller, owner of the Galena Hills Farm Market just a few miles from the Winfrey

farm. Oprah and Stedman once patronized the store frequently, picking up

Christmas trees, hand-made furniture or Amish baked goods. Their relationship

was such that one December evening Oprah arrived at the store after hours,

loaded a pre-cut Christmas tree into her Land Rover and left a note saying she

would mail Miller a check -- which she promptly did. "She's a real nice lady,"

says James. "She was always very pleasant when she came in."

Another favorite haunt is the restaurant section of the Heston Bar, situated

in the crossroads community of Hesston (spelled with an extra S). Before she

enlisted a killjoy dietitian who virtually eradicated fat from her diet, Oprah

was a frequent diner in the establishment, which lies three miles from her home.

"Our menu is pretty much off-limits to her now," says co-owner Tim Ohlund.

"She still comes in now and then when she's entertaining friends, but she just

has a salad or something very light." In her Heston Bar heyday, Oprah's

favorite entrees were lobster, chicken or barbecued ribs with a stack of fries.

"She rarely put on the dog," says Tim. "She normally dressed casually without

full TV makeup, and she didn't try to draw attention to herself or flaunt her

wealth. She never came in her and started throwing $100 bills around."

Customers' necks twisted like Wonder Bread ties whenever Winfrey & Co. sat

down at a table. "You could read people's lips saying, 'Wow! That's Oprah!' but

they rarely bothered her," says Tim. "Occasionally, someone would go over and

ask for an autograph, but we did our best to honor her privacy. I think that's

why she came back so much."

Conversely, whenever Oprah's white limo pulls into La Porte's only K mart,

word of her impending arrival spreads so quickly through the store that

shoppers wait for her entry like guests at a surprise party. "As soon as she

walks through the door, you see people peeking around the corners -- pointing

and whispering," says checkout supervisor Debbie Shelley. "I'm sure she gets

tired of the attention, but she's always gracious and never grouchy or short

with people."

Truth be told, Stedman is the consummate K mart shopper, drawn to its

sporting goods department like a lemming to the sea. "He comes in all the

time," says Shelley. "He parks his green sports car out front and goes straight

for the golf equipment. He buys anything he can find that's related to golf:

golf balls, golf tees, golf gloves ..."

Those who know that Oprah spent millions remodeling her farm house may find

it difficult to imagine her fluttering around blue light specials. But Winfrey,

who grew up in poverty, can be as frugal as she is famous. When she remodeled

her home five years ago, she waltzed through the K mart checkout line armed

with hundreds of dollars' worth of white towels, bedsheets and tablecloths.

It doesn't take a newcomer long to discover that when it comes to Oprah,

seldom is heard a disparaging word. To a person, citizens who have crossed her

path say she has a personality spritzed with Downy, and that despite having

captured as much of the American dream as a person's hands were made to grasp,

she is unpretentious, unassuming and utterly engaging. Locals hasten to point

out that in 1992, she donated $50,000 to help build Dunebrook, a facility

between La Porte and Michigan City that provides care and treatment for abused

children; and has given liberally to numerous local charities.

But no one in La Porte County sings her praises any more resoundingly than

her staff, whom she treats like family. Heather Ludlow, the 17-year-old

daughter of Oprah's head of security, recalls the party Winfrey threw two

summers ago for her employees at the farm and at Harpo Inc. -- plus their

friends, spouses and children. "She bused in more than 2,000 people and had the

whole thing catered," says Ludlow. "She brought in a fire truck for the kids,

and people could ride three-wheelers, take hot-air balloon rides, swim in her

pool and ride her horses. And she was really nice to everyone, even us kids.

She signed my T-shirt and gave me a big hug."

Some La Porte citizens are so smitten with the warm-hearted celebrity that

instead of waiting for their number to come up in the Oprah Lottery, they

shamelessly trail her like farm cats chasing dinner. Even so, many have to

settle for encounters with Stedman or Oprah's underlings. A year ago, Sue

Yoakum, manager for Dunkin Donuts in La Porte, was chatting with customers in

the dining room when Stedman walked in. "I ran over to the counter so I could

get a better look at him," she recalls. "He's a tall, nice-looking man -- very

friendly, down to earth and health-conscious. All he wanted was one cinnamon

bagel with no cream cheese."

At the bottom of the food chain are the hapless residents who, even after

seven years, have yet to view La Porte County's most famous resident in any

setting other than a picture tube. Rather than bear their shame in silence,

some placate their pride by recalling encounters with UFOs (Unrecognizable

Friends of Oprah). "One of her housekeepers came in here two years ago, which

I suppose is better than nothing," sighs Margot Wiltfong, office manager at

Al's Supermarket in La Porte.

Echoing these sentiments is Rose Smith, assistant manager at the Super 8

Motel. "Four years ago, I checked in a man who was laying down the carpeting in

her house," she says. "I guess that's as close as I'll ever get to Oprah."

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