LLOYD GRAY: Ward Cleaver, 50 years later

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

It’s another jolt to us Baby Boomers that the kid who starred in “Leave it to Beaver” is now retirement age. Jerry Mathers recently turned 65.
On this Father’s Day, it’s worth pondering what has happened to the paternal image since the Beav was a boy.
“Leave it to Beaver” had a long run in syndication after its prime time heyday in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s , and you can still find it on TV every now and then. But most of the time when it’s mentioned these days, it’s in a dismissive way, as in, “We don’t live in a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ world anymore,” or we never did.
Certainly there’s truth in that if it’s meant that the typical 21st century American family doesn’t consist of a working father, two kids, a dog (did the Beav have a dog?) and a stay-at-home mom who serves a hot breakfast to her man and boys wearing a flowered dress and strand of pearls. June Cleaver would be in the workforce now, contributing to the decline in American education per our governor, and Ward would probably have been downsized from his middle management job, whatever it was.
And one or the other might have decided to take a walk from the marriage in search of greater self-actualization and personal growth.
But there’s also a tone in the “Beaver” brushoffs, as in similar references to other sit-coms of the era like “Father Knows Best,” that suggests the portrayal of quiet fatherly strength, wisdom, stability, leadership and kindly devotion is either hopelessly outdated or never accurate in the first place.
You have to wonder why our popular culture has come to consider these fatherly qualities as outmoded and Ward Cleaver as, at best, a relic of the past and, at worst, representative of an oppressive patriarchy we should all want to be rid of.
It’s a bum rap for Ward.
Sure, June deferred to Ward on decisions a little more than most wives and mothers would be comfortable with today. And Ward did have a lot of time to read the newspaper and puff on his pipe while June was busy preparing dinner.
But Ward was always eminently respectful of June and solicitous of her opinion, at least on matters regarding the children. And in most cases, they made parental decisions together.
In dealing with the boys, he was compassionate but firm, always taking advantage of the teachable moment. He spent time with them but didn’t micromanage their lives or try to be their best friend. He was a father, not a buddy.
Beaver and Wally in turn respected him and, while they sometimes chafed under his edicts, they came – more quickly, yes, than would likely have been the case in real life – to understand and appreciate his wisdom.
Were all fathers of the time like that? Of course not, any more than they are today. But the popular culture of the time reflected an ideal to aspire to, rather than the cynical TV image today of the bumbling, completely out of it father struggling to gain the approval of his much smarter and worldly wise kids who are the ones who teach him the lessons.
And the Ward Cleaver ideal did derive credibility from the fact that there were, and are, many fathers like him. I have one. I’m also aware that everybody doesn’t, and that a whole lot of kids have no father at all these days.
But that’s not a reason to dismiss Ward Cleaver as irrelevant. He was there when needed. He didn’t cut out on his family. He loved his wife. He modeled what a man should be for his sons.
He’s more relevant today than ever.
LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.