NEW YORK (AP) — They were the moms every kid of that generation longed for.
They were the fantasy moms of 1950s sitcoms. Margaret Anderson of “Father Knows Best” (played by Jane Wyatt). Donna Stone of “The Donna Reed Show.” Harriet Nelson in the TV version of her real-life self on “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.”
But towering above them all was Barbara Billingsley. It was 53 years ago that she became Beaver Cleaver’s mom. And at her death on Saturday at age 94, she remained so for millions of “Leave It to Beaver” fans, as well as remaining their own mom, too, in some TV-generated alternative universe.
Nothing against real-life moms, of course. It’s just that the sitcom moms that June Cleaver epitomized were a different breed. A dream. A standard of maternal excellence that (as any kid back then might have hoped at bad moments) real-life moms should take a few lessons from.
Why couldn’t every mom be as pretty as June? Why couldn’t every mom speak with that soothing voice?
Why couldn’t real-life moms be as nicely turned out as June — always dressed for company, it seemed, even when she was tidying the house or in the kitchen baking a coconut cake? And how about that pearl necklace at her throat! She was the “It” Mom you’d be proud to show off when she dropped you at school every morning. Except in the bucolic town of Mayfield, Beaver (played by Jerry Mathers) and his big brother Wally (Tony Dow) could get themselves to school on foot.
As played by Billingsley, June Cleaver had endless patience. When Beaver was late to an all-important birthday party after falling in a street that was being repaved, June never raised her voice about his tarry mess and his tardiness.
And in an era when corporal punishment was still an approved parenting technique, June would never have raised her hand to her boys.
The closest she came to upbraiding her kids was her trademark expression of concern directed not at them, but to their father: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver.”
Then it was up to Ward, played by Hugh Beaumont, to have a little man-to-man talk with Beaver. And he did, without fireworks.
As any kid viewer could tell, Ward was upright, sensible, if somewhat starchy. As a professional accountant, he was all about maintaining order. He seemed to be the ideal for middle-class manhood in 1950s America. Fortunately, no little boy watching “Leave It to Beaver” let that give them the willies.
Meanwhile, they knew it was June who was empathetic, fun and baked cakes — and who advocated for her boys to her Ward boss.
In one episode, little Beaver wants to spend $12.95 of the savings in his bank account to buy a really swell sweater.
Ward predictably replies, “I don’t think we should lay out 13 dollars just on a whim.”
But after the boys have left the dinner table, June mounts an appeal: “I think we should let him have that sweater,” she says gently.
“Ohhh, noww, Juuuuuune,” Ward protests.
Beaver gets their OK to buy the sweater, which is not only hideous but (to Beaver’s mortification) turns out to be a girl’s sweater.
By the end of the episode, Beaver’s mom puts everything right.
The original “Leave It to Beaver” series premiered in October 1957 and aired through September 1963. A curious thing: This glowing, picket-fenced vision of Americana ended two months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
An age of disillusionment had begun. And in TV sitcoms, the perfect nuclear family with the perfect stay-at-home mom was an endangered species.
In its place, “All in the Family” with addled doormat Edith Bunker came along. And raucous Roseanne Conner on “Roseanne.” And raunchy Peg Bundy on “Married ... with Children.” These were moms tailor-made for a different world of viewers. It was a different world of parents who weren’t seeking escape by watching TV parents who were better than they could ever hope to be. They were seeking jagged reassurance from parents as hung up, or more so, than they had ever feared they could ever become.
Such a product of its times, “Leave It to Beaver” should have disappeared along with fallout shelters, bobbysoxers and full-service stations where gas was two-bits a gallon.
That’s what’s happened to Donna Stone, Harriet Nelson and Margaret Anderson, all of whom, with the late actresses who played them, have receded into TV history.
All the more impressive that “Leave It to Beaver” has endured as a cultural touchstone, a 20th-century reference point, nostalgic fluff that still feels stirringly honest.
Much of that is attributable to June.
Now the passing of Barbara Billingsley represents a death in every TV viewer’s family. A half-century later, June Cleaver, as Billingsley portrayed her, remains a TV mom against which real-life moms are still measured.