by Thomas G. Lee
Grandson of Leo Edwards
Writing about his early life in the small rural town of Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Reagan says in "Where's the Rest of Me," that he had a boyhood much like Jerry Todd. We all know that Ronald Reagan is now President of the United States. But who is Jerry Todd?
Jerry is the fictional friend of thousands of boys and girls who read the stories and books written in the 1920's and 1930's by my grandfather Edward Edson Lee who wrote under the pen name of Leo Edwards.
The first Jerry Todd in book form was Jerry Todd and the Whispering Mummy published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1924. In six years it sold over 300,000 copies. Many books followed: Jerry Todd and The Rose-Colored Cat, Jerry Todd and the Oak Island Treasure, Jerry Todd and the Waltzing Hen, Jerry Todd and the Talking Frog, Jerry Todd and the Purring Egg, Jerry Todd and the Whispering Cave, Jerry Todd: Pirate, Jerry Todd and the Flying Flapdoodle, and more. Jerry Todd and the Bob-Tailed Elephant, published in 1929, received more advanced orders from dealers than any juvenile published by Grosset and Dunlap.
Jerry and his friends lived in Tutter, Illinois, a typical middle-western American small town at the turn of the century. In reality, Tutter was actually based on the village of Utica, Illinois, where Lee was born in 1884. Utica is about 40 miles from Tampico, Reagan's birthplace.
Every Jerry Todd book had a detailed map of Tutter on its end papers, showing all the points of interest. As Jerry says in The Purring Egg, "Tutter is a small town. It is one of the smallest towns in LaSalle County. And instead of murdering each other, as is frequently done in the big cities, if one is to believe the newspapers, the people go to church and lodge, and otherwise behave themselves...which is all right, of course, and proper, but it's hard on the man who has to publish the daily newspaper."
Including Jerry the "gang" numbers four. Although he was the narrator, Jerry was not the leader. That post was reserved to Scoop Ellery, a smart kid whose father owned the Tutter grocery, which had a candy and ice cream country. The other members were Red Meyer, whose dad owned the Tutter movie theater, and Peg Shaw. Red was small and fiery-tempered, with a gargantuan appetite for pie. He was gabby as they come, and as his nickname implied, has bright red hair and numerous freckles. Peg, whose father was a painter-plasterer, was big, with "cast-iron muscles," and the oldest and calmest, and avoided fights where possible in spite of his size.
On the other side were the bullies from the "tough section" of Tutter. The leader was Bid Stricker, parochial roughneck, followed by cousin Jimmy Stricker, Hib and Chet Milden, and Jum Prater (who had the "loudest mouth in Tutter.")
The two gangs fought at least one pitched battle per book, with Jerry and his friends losing steadily until the end, when they always outwitted Bid and his boys. The battles were fought with harmless ammunition like mud, rotten tomatoes, and rotten eggs, never with anything dangerous like rocks. Although on one occasion the Strickers did let loose with acorn-bearing sling-shots, but Jerry and his friends stood well back. "After all, a fellow can lose an eye that way." On another occasion when Jerry was captured by the bulling Stricker gang after he had fallen into the lake, the though kids wrapped him carefully in a blanket before tying him up, so that he wouldn't catch cold.
A strong characteristic of Jerry Todd and all of Lee's heroes, in addition to reverence, truth, and a compulsion to do good deeds, was their intense respect for their parents. As Jerry says in The Purring Egg: "While I was washing my face and hands in the kitchen sink Dad came into the room, whistling and jiggling his feet in time to the music. In hugging Mother he reached behind and untied her apron strings. Then he gave me a swat on the head with the evening newspaper. When it comes to being lively and full of fun I'll put my dad up against any other man in LaSalle County. He's great!"
A typical Jerry Todd book begins with the basic gang of Jerry, Scoop, Red and Peg who get involved with some kind of mystery...a mummy in the local museum what whispers, a five-hundred dollar rose-colored cat, a waltzing hen, a large object that could b a fertile dinosaur egg, a talking bird and later a talking frog. There's a lot of camping out, and a great deal of activity on the lake in the "Sally Ann," a converted clay scow from Mr. Todd's brick yard which the boys turned into a showboat and later a battleship for their wars with the Strickers.
Lee was an amazing man. His life reads like an Horatio Alger novel. With no formal education since the age of thirteen, when he dropped out of school to support his mother, he developed his own literary skills to be able to rival all juvenile writers of his day.
It is interesting to note that it was a teacher who recognized Lee's aptitude for writing. One day Miss Kate Gardner, the Utica teacher said to him, "Eddie, I have a feeling that some day you will be writing articles for the big city papers." That was the only encouragement he received, for at home he was told that story writing was a waste of time; and later, when he tried to write fiction stories, his mother begged him with tears in her eyes to give up his "foolish ambition."
But Lee would not give up his dream. Later while working over the machines of a Beloit, Wisconsin, factory Lee's imagination flooded with stories. "I was heroes and villains in fantastic plots. Picture shows, music, stories I read, all had the strangest effect on me. I'd get all excited over them, cry like a baby, and want to write something of my own."
Success did not come easy; not in a few weeks or even years. In summing up his ability as an author Lee once said, "it is merely a combination of love for boys and girls, an intense yearning to write, and 20 years of hard work." And more than once during those long years Lee disgustedly ignited huge piles of rejected manuscripts. He one joked that he started bonfires with them. But, in his own words, he "kept plugging."
With the success of Jerry Todd, Lee introduced Jerry's friend Poppy Ott and a new series with such unforgettable titles as: Poppy Ott and the Stuttering Parrot, Poppy Ott's Pedigreed Pickles, Poppy Ott and the Prancing Pancake, Poppy Ott Hits the Trail, Poppy Ott and the Tittering Totem and Poppy Ott and the Freckled Goldfish.
Lee went on to establish books about Andy Blake for older boys and girls and Trigger Berg for younger readers, and my favorite, a series of dog stories starring the illustrious Tuffy Bean.
Lee's stories were always based on real people and real locations. He captured in his books a particular enduring quality about growing up in America, a quality found in the philosophy of Ronald Reagan.