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Jane Wyatt Practices What Series Preached : Former Star of Television Is Longtime Activist for March of Dimes, Los Angeles Beautiful

July 24, 1986|KAREN LAVIOLA | Laviola is a View intern. and

To someone raised with the Anderson family of the '50s television series, "Father Knows Best," seeing Jane Wyatt open the front door of her Bel-Air home stirs a feeling of deja vu .

If Jim Anderson (Robert Young) strolled into her living room and gave her a kiss, it would not be a surprise. If Betty (Elinor Donahue) disappeared up the stairs hollering, "Mother, where is my pink sweater?" or Bud (Billy Gray) yelled from inside the refrigerator, "Mom, what's for dinner?," it would seem natural. If Kathy (Lauren Chapin) curled up on the couch next to her and asked pertly, "Mommy, who's this?," it would not seem unusual.

For those who remember, Jane Wyatt is Margaret Anderson.

"What is touching is when a grown man comes up to me and tells me he was raised in an orphanage and I was the only mother he ever had," Wyatt said. "It happens all the time."

And now, Wyatt does exactly what Margaret Anderson would be doing after her children are raised. She is involved in charity work, particularly with the March of Dimes, with which she has worked since its founding in 1938, and for the past 12 years with Los Angeles Beautiful, a county beautification organization.

But even though she looks, dresses, walks and talks like her, Jane Wyatt is not Margaret Anderson. She has been married to investor Edgar B. Ward for 50 years and they have two sons and three grandchildren. At 75, she still works when she wants to, occasionally on television or as Mr. Spock's mother in one of the "Star Trek" movies--or she promotes her favorite projects.

"She does more than just lend her name, she is an active member," said Gail Watson, executive director of Los Angeles Beautiful. Wyatt, who has been active on various committees and has been a judge in the group's annual Student Beautification Awards for the past five years, was recently named Los Angeles Beautiful membership chairman.

Los Angeles Beautiful is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the Southern California environment. It has been involved for 37 years in planting trees, fighting signboards and litter, landscaping freeways, recognizing businesses for landscaping and promoting awareness among the community.

According to Wyatt, Los Angeles Beautiful's most important program, however, is its effort to instill a feeling of pride and appreciation for the environment in young people, especially those living in cities.

"A young boy will say, 'There were tin cans and old broken-down bicycles in the backyard and I started to clean it up to make a garden. The neighbors came around and said what are you doing, how stupid can you be and made fun of me over the backyard fence.' But after it was all done, he found that people started raking up their yards and planting a little something," Wyatt said. "That story is told quite often, so I know it's true.

"I think gardening can teach kids so much, especially responsibility, because if you don't water those plants, especially in California, the flowers will die. You see them growing from a seed to a full plant and finally they harvest the vegetables."

As this year's guest speaker, Wyatt presented first-place awards to students from 14 junior and senior high schools from the Los Angeles Unified School District at the Student Beautification Awards ceremony. About 12,000 students from 47 schools compete each year in the four categories--campus, community, school garden and home projects.

"People respect her as an actress and as an individual. She is interested in young people and that really comes across when you see her talking with them," Watson said. She said the students apparently recognize Wyatt from "Father Knows Best" reruns. "She has a commitment to making our world a better place in which to live."

Making a Difference

When Wyatt addressed the students, she used one of the old programs as an example of how one person can make his part of the world a better place to live. Franc came to the Andersons' door one day wanting work as a gardener, said Wyatt, who relates the story and others about the Andersons as though they were real.

One day they learned Franc had been arrested. He had been charged with stealing plants from the park. By the end of the half-hour show, however, everyone learned that instead of stealing plants, Franc was instead planting more flowers.

Indeed, Wyatt practices what she preaches. "I work hard in the garden, I really do," she said, and calls herself her gardener's laborer. She saves rainwater in trash cans and uses it for her house plants.

"We're living on a desert, you know," she said.

On the Ground in Africa

Wyatt enjoys nature and has taken her grandchildren on camping trips to Wyoming and the High Sierras. She has also gone on safari in Africa, staying in a hotel only three nights of three weeks, the rest of the time "right on the ground." She enjoys birding in the mountains with friends who "are, not bird-watchers, birders."

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