When the delivery truck pulled up at the base of their steep driveway, the Beardsley children knew what to do.
The crew, clad in hand-me-down clothes, poured out of their eight-bedroom Carmel home and down the hill. They helped unload 50-pound bags of flour and huge tubs of jam. Grocery shopping for 22 was pandemonium; instead, a restaurant supply company brought the food to them.
"A jar of peanut butter? Gosh, that would last one meal. Maybe," said Susie Pope, a middle child in a big, blended family that inspired a Lucille Ball movie.
Frank Beardsley, the family's patriarch, who ran his home with a military-trained eye for exactness, died Dec. 11 of complications of old age at a hospital in Santa Rosa. He was 97.
A broad-shouldered man with Irish roots and a deep Catholic faith, he was born in San Francisco on Sept. 11, 1915. The Navy veteran, who served aboard the battleship Iowa during World War II, eventually held administration and personnel positions at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.
When Francis Louis Beardsley met Frances Louise Albrecht, he took the similarity in their names as a sign. They dated, got married and had 10 children. Then, at 45, he lost his wife to a diabetes-induced coma. The grieving widower, trying to balance raising the children and serving in the Navy, sent his two youngest daughters to live with family friends.
Soon, he received a missive from Helen North. The widowed mother of eight, who knew Beardsley's sister, had sent a small prayer card that had comforted her. Touched, he eventually called to ask her out.
The couple married the next year.
Any reticence the Beardsley children had about getting a new mother melted away the moment they laid eyes on Helen, Pope said.
She wore an easy smile and owned the same black-and-white satin dress their mom had. Little coincidences like that happened frequently, Pope said. Helen even came to the family with the same set of china as their mother.
"So many things pointed to this," Pope said. "It was divine providence."
Helen, her eight children and all of Beardsley's moved into one home. The couple adopted each other's children and had two more of their own — bringing the total to 12 girls and eight boys.
"You would think two people just wouldn't have enough love to go around," Pope said. "But they did."
And yet, life with such a full house wasn't easy — or cheap. Beardsley shopped almost exclusively in bulk and at the commissary.
"He would simply buy tons of shoes — patent leather, tennis shoes, white oxfords," Pope said. "He didn't care what sizes — he knew one of us would fit into it eventually."
To make ends meet, the family ran a doughnut shop staffed by the children and starred in a Langendorf Bread Co. commercial, which earned them royalties and 50 free loaves of bread every week for a year. And Helen published "Who Gets the Drumstick?" a 1965 memoir whose title refers to the family's common Thanksgiving meal conundrum.
Upon reading the book, Lucille Ball quickly swept up the rights to the story and eventually starred as Helen North Beardsley, alongside Henry Fonda, in the 1968 movie "Yours, Mine and Ours," which was remade in 2005 and starred Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid.
Ball, who paid for the Beardsleys to take a five-day trip to
"The story was very near and dear to her heart," she said last week.
The film, which portrays an exaggerated us-versus-them complex that the family contends didn't exist in real life, brought a sudden wave of fame that resonated differently for each member of the family.
"Some of us got a little bit of a big head," Pope said, through a laugh. "My dad would rein us in and say, 'Look, you're nobody without the other 19.' "
Beardsley, who had a knack for telling jokes, valued order above most things. He made unannounced "white glove inspections" of his children's rooms and allowed absolutely no dust, Pope said. For a while, he put them on an exercise regimen that entailed gathering in the yard for jumping jacks.
"My dad was the disciplinarian in the home," Pope said. "And my new mom was the heart."
After his second wife died in 2000, Beardsley remarried again. His third wife, Dorothy, was a nurse, just as the previous two had been.
She survives him, as do all 20 of his children and stepchildren, most of whom still live in California. The precise number of grandchildren defied a recent family count but was thought to be 47.