MAXWELL: Ward Cleaver was my great inspiration

2/14/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

“What was the most important image in your life when you were growing up?” a student asked me last year when I addressed a high school honors class in St. Petersburg.
Not having a good on-the-spot-answer, I fumbled around and told him that water – the ocean, lakes and rivers I grew up around – always fired my imagination. The student came back and said he “really” was asking about the “image or symbol” that shaped my daily life, such as my work and my surroundings at home, as it is today.
I considered the enduring image of my grandfather, dressed in his black suit and starched white shirt, as he preached in the pulpit on Sundays. I am not a preacher, so the image of my grandfather would not do. I remembered how I marveled at the way my high school football coach devised ground-gaining plays on the sidelines. To me, he was a genius. But I am not a coach, so his example would not do.
At a loss, I told the student that I needed to think more about his excellent question before I could answer meaningfully. I did think more, a lot more, about it.
Two weeks ago, when I spoke to an adult group in Midtown for Black History Month and was asked a similar question, I was ready. I jokingly warned the audience that those who laughed at my answer could meet me in the parking lot after the meeting.
“It was Ward Cleaver’s den in Leave It to Beaver,” I said.
Leave It to Beaver is the television sitcom that aired from 1957 to 1963.
Many people laughed, but one woman understood immediately. “All of those books in there,” she said, her arms gesturing a sense of enormousness. She was right.
Ward’s den/office always caught my attention. Here, Ward disciplined his totally normal sons, Beaver and Wally, made telephone calls and balanced the family checkbook.
In early episodes, a big globe stood near a window. Later, a TV set replaced the globe, but the set was never on. The den was Ward’s refuge from his undefined but important white-collar job in a big corporation.
Beautiful books, many with perfect dust jackets, lined an entire wall. At times, Ward, clad in suit and tie of course, took a book from a shelf and gave it to Beaver to complete a homework assignment.
I vividly recall the episode when Ward shared with his sons the joy of reading Mark Twain and the lessons he learned about life from Twain’s books and short stories. In another episode, with Beaver and Wally at his side, Ward read from Huckleberry Finn aloud. I imagined myself one day doing the same with my children, which I did.
One of the funniest episodes was when Ward asked Beaver to paint a fence. Having read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Beaver, like Tom, tricked his pals into painting the fence for him. The boys botched the job. Ward was not pleased.
I learned a few years ago that Ward and June, the perfect wife, rarely read anything other than newspapers and magazines. As a child, I missed this fact. The image of that wall of books and Ward’s frequent allusions to the moral lessons he learned from books left me with the impression that the Cleavers read voraciously away from the cameras, a kind of enveloping reality.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1963, I had collected several hundred books, mostly dime detective novels. My biggest coup came in 11th grade when I paid one buck for more than a dozen discarded hardback novels during a public library sale in Fort Lauderdale. My bedroom became my den/library. My shelves were citrus field boxes stacked vertically and horizontally.
Since then, my living space always has been a library/den. The wonderful thing about having books around is they entice you to read them. As far as I am concerned, a home is not a home if it does not have books and, by the way, a globe.