Maybe not ideal, but close enough
Ah yes, the Cleavers – Ward, June, Wally, and Beaver. The ideal family of the 1950s. Improbably perfect, some have said. Could there have been even a single family like them in the real world?
Quite possibly there was – in fact, more than one. Take the Jerry and Hazel Cadman family that moved to Hermitage in 1956. Their son Jerry, Jr., compares them favorably with the Cleavers.
“My mom stayed at home and ran the house, and my dad went to work,” he said. “It was basically Ward and June Cleaver. We weren’t an exciting family, but having said that, I haven’t seen a family I would rather have been a part of, and I haven’t seen any parents I would rather have had. I can say that honestly, and not just because it’s a nice thing to say about your mom and dad. That’s actually true. I’ve actually thought about it in those terms before.”
According to son Jerry, their family wasn’t the only one whose character mirrored the Cleavers.
“There were a whole lot of people I grew up with who were in a similar situation,” he said. “A lot of my friends’ moms didn’t work, their dads worked. I didn’t learn until I got out in the world that a lot of people didn’t get along with their parents. I was shocked to see that. My mom and dad and I sometimes felt differently about some things, but I didn’t know there was such a thing as people who actually didn’t like their parents.”
So what’s the fundamental difference between a real-world family like the Cadmans and a fictitious TV family like the Cleavers? Just this: the real-world family is far more admirable, because they had to go through real-life struggles to become what they were.
What do we know about Ward Cleaver? Did he have to struggle through a youthful failed marriage before finding June, the love of his life? Before becoming a briefcase carrying white collar worker, did he ever wear the nitty-gritty, down-to-earth blue collar of an over-the-road truck driver, wrestling big rigs – sometimes even double trailers – hauling steel over the narrow, winding pre-interstate roads? Did he lose two jobs because his employers’ bankruptcies? Did he ever sell tires for a living, and have to move his family from one city to another to follow work opportunities?
The heritage of Leave it to Beaver does not include the concept that Ward Cleaver ever faced such struggles. Jerry Cadman, Sr., on the other hand, most certainly did.
Jerry was born in North Warren, PA, on March 19, 1911. His family moved to Lawrence Park, PA, near Erie, shortly after he was born. When he was six, they moved again to neighboring Wesleyville. That’s where Jerry grew up.
The seeds of his ultimate career were planted while he was still in high school. During his senior year, he worked in Devine and Berry’s, a local drug store.
Not long after graduating from high school, Jerry got married. But he and his wife had no children, and the marriage only lasted about ten years. Jerry worked briefly selling insurance for H. O. Hirt, the founder of the Erie Insurance Group.
Then Jerry earned a degree in pharmacy from Pitt University, studying part-time for four years, and full time in Pittsburgh for one.
“When I came out of pharmacy school in 1939,” Jerry said, “Devine and Berry offered me a job for $25 a week. My father, who had a steel-hauling business with 17 trucks in Warren, Ohio, offered me $35 a week to drive truck for him. I could save money by living with my folks, and things worked out much better. I enjoyed truck driving. It was an experience in my life I’ll never forget.”
Jerry particularly remembers three experiences.
“I picked up a load of steel in Niles, Ohio, and drove it to Syracuse, New York,” he said. “Before I unloaded it, they re-billed it to Buffalo, so I hauled it there. In Buffalo, they re-billed it to Youngstown.”
One time he was pulled over by the New York State Police.
“Coming out of New York after the war was over,” Jerry said, “a highway patrolman pulled me over, and he says, ‘Don’t you know that thing is illegal up here?’ I said, ‘Yes but I’ve been coming up here the last couple of years without any problem.’ He says, ‘I know, I’ve seen you, but the war is over, so you get that thing the h— out of here and don’t you ever let me see you with it up here again.”
The third incident had the greatest impact on his life.
“I pulled my truck up to a stop light in Erie, and a lady pulled up alongside me in her car,” he said. “I had known her when I worked in the drug store. Hazel and I started seeing each other, and got married in 1945.”
Hazel had a son, Harry (nicknamed Buck) and a daughter Jean from a previous marriage. Jerry Cadman, Jr., was born in 1947.
Just a couple of years later, Jerry’s dad’s trucking business was severely impacted by a steel strike. He had to drastically reduce the size of his operation, keeping only three trucks out of the 17 he was operating before the strike. Jerry had to look for another job.
He started selling tires for a company in Warren, Ohio. In 1954, the company opened a store in Sharon, on Connelly Boulevard where Sharon Cycle Sales and Service is now. Jerry commuted daily to Sharon from Warren to work in that store. In 1956 he bought a house in Hermitage and moved his family there.
After a fire at the Connelly Boulevard store, the business was moved to East State Street where L&M Tires now operates. The business eventually closed down, and Jerry had to look for work again. He decided to return to the profession for which he had been trained many years before. He went to Harrisburg to renew his pharmacy license, which qualified him to be an assistant pharmacist. He could do everything a pharmacist could, except run a pharmacy by himself.
“They reissued it with few questions asked,” he said. “Maybe there was a shortage of pharmacists at the time.”
Jerry started working for Thrift Drugs in 1964. He worked for them until he was pushed into retirement at age 65. That was in 1976.
“They called me down to Pittsburgh for some kind of severance or something,” Jerry said. “One of the men there asked me if I had anything to say. I said, ‘The only thing I’ve got to say is that the most difficult thing I ever did was to turn the key in that door last night.’ He said, ‘Don’t you want to quit?’ I said, ‘No I don’t.’ So they kept me on as a relief pharmacist. I worked all over the area.”
That lasted another seven years.
“I was called by an HR person. ‘Do you know you’re 72? You can’t be working for us at that age.’ So Jerry had to retire for good.
“Dad was a hard worker,” said his son Jerry. “That was the most important thing for him – security for my mom and his family. He was always either working or he was with us. I always admired him. He had a good sense of right and wrong. He’s an all-around good guy. Everybody who knew him liked him.”
Jerry remembers how his father delighted in doing special things for those he loved. For a number of years, his dad took his mom to New England every autumn to view the foliage because his mom loved it so much.
“Mom was raised on a farm, and loved Clydesdales,” Jerry said. “So Dad got a kit of the Budweiser team and put it together for her. I went into the navy when I was nineteen and served on the U.S.S. Long Beach. He bought a kit and made a model of that, too.”
Jerry Senior was also a good father to Hazel’s children, Harry (Buck) and Jean. Buck’s wife Dot, whom he met and married in South Carolina in 1955, feels that she and her children were really part of the family. She particularly remembers the special family occasions, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays.
“Hazel would cook Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for everyone, even when she was 95,” Dot said. “She also cooked for everybody’s birthday. I was allowed to do hers and Jerry’s at my house, but she took care of everybody else’s. It was a very good family.”
Jerry’s stepchildren both passed away in the late 1990s.
In her later years, Hazel developed crippling arthritis, and Jerry faithfully cared for her every need until she passed away in 2002.
Jerry, now 96 years old, still lives in the house he bought in 1956. Even though Dot has remarried, she still visits Jerry very often to make sure he’s okay and has everything he needs.
So, was Jerry’s family a replica of the Cleavers? No, it was much more than that. Jerry and Hazel bounced off the real-life bumps and bruises that TV parents of the 1950s never seem to face, but they still managed to raise a good, loving family.
The original Cleavers were on television for just five years. Their family had no pre-history and no fulfillment, despite the various attempts at film and TV sequels. There is probably no such thing as the ideal family, but if you’re looking for one, you would do better to look at the Cadmans rather than the Cleavers.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009