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
"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
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
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."