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America's Mom

When it comes to remembering Barnard, it turns out that mother does know best.

That “mother” is Jane Wyatt Ward ’32, who played über-mom Margaret Anderson from 1954 to 1960 in the popular television situation-comedy Father Knows Best. Ward’s long and diverse career included Broadway plays and the role of Spock’s human mother, Amanda, in an episode of the Star Trek TV series and in one of the movies. Ward, who died at 96 in 2006, made a large gift to Barnard through her estate.

Ward’s generosity might seem unexpected given that she spent only two years at Barnard before leaving to pursue a career in theatre. But classmate Ethel Greenfield Booth ’32 recalls Ward’s time at Barnard, which included performances as a member of the drama society Wigs and Cues. Booth, a fellow Wigs and Cues member, says with Ward’s passion for acting, she enjoyed very much working with the society. “Some of her earliest dramatic successes were there,” she says.

Ward, a beauty who had an innate stage presence, was regularly tapped to play young, attractive women. “There was no question she’d be the ingénue, if there was an ingénue part, whereas because of my deeper voice, I often got cast as the male,” Booth, 95, says with a chuckle. “She was someone who had inborn poise. She knew how to gracefully command a scene.”Jane Wyatt Ward

Ward was born into a well-to-do New York family in 1910. Her mother was a theatre critic for the Catholic World and other publications; her father was an investment banker. She was a high school student when she met her future husband, Edgar B. Ward, a Harvard freshman, on a train. Both had been invited to spend a weekend with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, at their Hyde Park home.

Ward left Barnard in 1929 (a younger sister, Monica, would graduate in 1944) to join the apprentice school of the Berkshire Playhouse in Massachusetts. She made her Broadway debut in 1931, which would have been her junior year at Barnard, in A.A. Milne’s Give Me Yesterday. Eventually she moved to Hollywood, where she furthered her movie career, and where she continued to live after her marriage in 1935. Her co-stars included Cary Grant, Ethel Barrymore, Gregory Peck, and Gary Cooper. As Americans embraced television in the 1950s, Ward began to appear on the small screen.

Thanks to her long-running role in Father Knows Best, she was often recognized in public but preferred to keep a low profile as a mother, a devout Catholic, and a longtime community volunteer and activist, says her older son, Chris Ward, 71.

“People think of her as a movie star, which she was, but she wasn’t a glamour girl,” he says. “She told me several times that her ideal job would be to be to take a Shakespearean play with a big woman’s lead in it and have a long run on Broadway.”

Booth, her former classmate, settled in Los Angeles as well, and the women were unexpectedly put in touch again when Ward had a part in a play at the TV station where Booth worked as head of women’s programs. They remained in touch on and off, especially where Barnard was concerned, throughout their lives. When Barnard wanted to honor Ward in 1992, the actress called Booth to express her qualms. Booth urged her to accept, saying the award would benefit Barnard. Ward ultimately agreed and returned to New York to receive the College’s Woman of Achievement award.

Ward was a consistent donor to the school, says Audra M. Lewton of Barnard’s Office of Planned Giving. The gift from Ward’s estate was unrestricted, allowing Barnard to use it where it’s most needed, Lewton says, “which is just about the best kind of gift we can get. It was left to Barnard to decide what’s important. When people give these significant gifts without restrictions, it says they trust the institution. It’s a vote of confidence.”

-by June D. Bell, photograph courtest of Barnard Archives