Jerry Mathers does not remember his time as a resident of Rock Rapids but that hasn’t stifled his enthusiasm for visiting the community. Mathers, who starred as Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver in the television series “Leave it to Beaver” in the 1950s and 1960s, will visit Rock Rapids for Heritage Days and participate in several events. He and his wife, Teresa, will be featured as Heritage Days parade marshals.
Mathers was born June 2, 1948, in Sioux City, Iowa, and then lived in Rock Rapids where his dad, Norman, was a teacher and a coach. Norman was born and raised in Sioux City and graduated from Morningside College and the Mathers family stayed connected to Sioux City through relatives, including Jerry’s grandmother, over the years. “I’ve been back to Sioux City so I’m familiar with Iowa and that general area of Iowa, but not particularly Rock Rapids,” said Jerry about his connection to the area.
Even though Jerry says he’s not familiar with Rock Rapids, he said he prefers not to do any research ahead of his arrival Friday. “You can do all the research in the world and when you get there the people in the town say, ‘Oh that’s just what they say in books. Let me show you the real place.’ Really the thing I like to do is meet the people because that’s how you really find out what a place is about,” said Jerry. “It’s about the people that live there and how they feel about it.”
Jerry’s mom, Marilyn, who celebrated her 90th birthday this May, remembers several people and the family’s time in Rock Rapids. “I was enthralled with the beauty of the landscape — row upon row of cornfields gently swaying in the breeze,” she recounted in a short write-up, My Fond Memories of Rock Rapids, Iowa, shared with the Lyon County Reporter. “As we entered the small town, with its one main street surrounded by lovely mostly two-story wooden-frame houses, my heart was captured and the scene remains vivid in my memory to this day.”
Once the family arrived, then school janitor, Knute Kyle, arranged for a more suitable living situation for the Mathers rather than the upstairs bedroom of one of the wooden-frame houses Norman had secured, according to Marilyn’s short story. “It was also the converted, separate unit, three bedrooms and bathroom of a two-story home and the owner was a Mrs. Corcoran who lived on the bottom floor,” Marilyn explained. “Mrs. Corcoran turned out to be a precious gem of a woman. I don’t know how I would have ever gotten through that first year of mothering Jerry without her wisdom and advice.”
The Mathers family departed Rock Rapids before Jerry was 2 and his television and show business career began shortly after with a Pet Condensed Milk commercial. He made his movie debut in 1954 and appeared in a handful of movies before the television series “Leave it to Beaver” debuted in 1957. While most youngsters in Rock Rapids were enjoying their summer days in Island Park, Jerry spent eight hours a day filming six seasons and a total 234 episodes of the show. After “Leave it to Beaver,” he attended “regular” school. “When my dad came out to California, his first job was as a coach at a parochial high school and I’d always wanted to go there,” explained Jerry. “When I finished ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ the producersat Universal (Studio) had another series they wanted me to go in and my mom and dad asked me and I said, ‘No, I want to go to regular school’ so I spent the next four years at Notre Dame High School in Los Angeles.”
Following high school, Jerry said he spent six years in the military and graduated from Berkley with a degree in philosophy. He said he also realized he should learn how to control the money he earned from “Leave it to Beaver” and movies he’d done so he became a banker. “I was in banking several years and was making loans and saw that real estate people were basically making a lot more money than I was, so I went into real estate,” said Jerry. “Then I went back into acting in the late ’70s and I’ve been an actor ever since.”
Jerry has also directed and he made his Broadway debut in 2007 with a starring role as Wilbur Turnblad in the musical “Hairspray.” “Obviously ‘Leave it to Beaver’ is something I’ve always enjoyed but going onto Broadway was very, very challenging but something I also enjoyed,” he said.
Another role Jerry has been cast into is that of a spokesperson for diabetes-related issues. In the mid-90s, Jerry was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes after putting on weight, the result he said of running a catering business and sampling the food. “I had a good friend who’s a doctor that kept telling me to come in for a physical but I’d say, ‘No, I’m doing great, I feel great.’ When I finally went in, she said, ‘If you don’t do something now about your diabetes you’ll be dead in three to five years,’” Jerry explained, admitting he knew he was obese. “But a lot of people are obese. I thought, ‘Gee, this is the good life’,” he said. Jerry took preventative action, took off the weight, is now pre-diabetic and shares his message when he can. “I had no idea the harm I was causing my body by being that much overweight. Now I want to tell, especially my fans but anyone in general, if you are overweight, it would be a good idea, especially if you’re obese or morbidly obese, to lose a few pounds,” he said. “People just think ‘it’s the good life, that everyone’s overweight and I’m just a little bit,’ but pretty soon you’re a little bit more and you’ve got type 2 diabetes or some other complications.”
Long past his days as a baby and toddler in Rock Rapids, Jerry considers it a compliment to be so widely-recognized but credits the cast, writers and producers of “Leave it to Beaver,” the longest-running show in television history. “It’s never been off the air since 1957,” said Jerry. “I think it plays in 40 or more languages all over the world and plays in almost every country in the free world. It’s something that I can be walking in an airport and people will come up to me and, actually sometimes it’s funny, because they’ll be speaking to me in their native tongue.”
As a guest for Heritage Days, language won’t be a barrier for the former Rock Rapids resident. “I’m looking forward to being in Rock Rapids and meeting the people there,” said Jerry. “I’m sure it will be a fun time for me but I hope everybody else has a good time too.”