To millions of TV viewers, Michael Landon was a father figure.
To Abbe Effron, Landon (the actor who played "Pa" on Little House on the Prairie) was a local hero.
That's why the fate of a plaque honoring Landon is deeply personal to Effron, who now lives in Cherry Hill.
In the late 1990s, Effron read about a planned monument to Superman in the town of Krypton, IL, and then another in Riverside, IA, to Captain James T. Kirk. But Collingswood, where she was living, had no memorial for Landon, its own native son.
“These are fictional characters,” Effron says of the Man of Steel and the captain of the Enterprise. “[I thought] this real-life man deserves a tribute in his own town.”
Although she got the go-ahead for her idea, it was incumbent upon Effron to collect personally the money for her planned tribute at . Landon's widow, Cindy, donated The Little Tree House on the Prairie playground equipment. To purchase a plaque honoring Landon, Effron held fundraisers, solicited contributions and set up a not-for-profit bank account.
“My money and my efforts and my work went into raising the $1,400 for the plaque,” she says. “It took a good year-and-a-half, so to me, the plaque is important.”
Years later, the playground has been moved to a different location in Knight Park, the concrete base that marked it has been demolished, and the plaque that Effron worked 18 months to buy, earlier this year became the involving Collingswood Mayor James Maley, local gadfly Joseph DiNella—a vocal critic of Maley's—and a legion of overseas fans of Little House on the Prairie.
According to Maley, someone took the plaque from a local public-works garage after it had been brought there when the borough removed the marker's concrete base from the park because it presented a safety hazard. DiNella said someone had dropped the plaque on his front porch, and he brought it to the office of the local newspaper, The Retrospect. Collingswood police investigated the plaque's removal from borough property, but no charges have been filed.
The political kerfuffle notwithstanding, Effron doesn’t understand why Collingswood seems not to care about the late Landon, a standout high school athlete who spoke often of the anti-Semitic harassment he felt from neighbors during his time in town.
“I’ve given up long ago trying to figure out why Collingswood doesn’t want any kind of tribute to Michael Landon,” Effron says. “Other towns in the country are usually proud to have someone of that caliber.”
For the past 15 years, Effron has been the de facto point of contact for all things Michael Landon, fielding inquiries from news outlets, Landon fans and television networks. When the borough gets calls asking about Landon, she says they are routed directly to her. She’s happy to do it, but thinks it’s strange that the borough hasn’t yet worked out a better solution.
“I did all this for free, which I don’t mind,” Effron says. “I would do that for Michael. But I’m not officially anybody. I don’t even live in Collingswood anymore.
“I know it’s a very low-key, small town, but he’s a good guy,” she says. “He did special things with his life. I just think it would be very nice to say he came from there.”
Given the amount of time and energy she has devoted to these issues, Effron says, it’s disconcerting that the borough has no immediate plans to re-dedicate the Landon plaque or the Little Tree House on the Prairie. Maley’s last public comment on the issue was to defer the matter until spring, and Effron says that when she called last week, there was still nothing yet in the works.
“I emailed the mayor about a week ago and I said, ‘OK, it’s spring, what’s going on?’ I want to know; a lot of fans are still asking me,” she says. “[He said] ‘All I can tell you is that plans are in the works and we’ll contact you soon.’”
Maley told Collingswood Patch earlier this week that the borough has no immediate plans to re-dedicate the plaque, which is now at borough hall.
Effron says that although Maley is “always very nice to me,” she feels as though communication on the issue has become a one-way street. The situation has festered somewhat because she continues to receive phone calls and emails from Landon fans worldwide and she has no news to deliver.
“I don’t expect [the borough] to tell me and then me to tell the world,” she says. “I would expect there to be some sort of formal press release.”
Honoring a humanitarian
If she had her way, Effron says, she’d like to see the borough issue a formal admission of its mistake, hold a re-dedication ceremony, and re-mount the plaque near the tree house playground set.
“What’s the point of having the Little Tree House on the Prairie without the plaque?” she asks. “It looks bizarre because if you didn’t know it was there for Michael Landon, it’s far away from the playground.”
Even if something is accomplished, Effron says, the borough will only be going through the motions “because they have to.” She’s past being angry but doesn’t think any fix would be “real genuine,” and says Maley miscalculated the impact of his initial remarks that “people are making too much of this.”
Without local reporting on the issue, Effron says she might not even have known the plaque was missing until the next time she came to visit. She told DiNella, “You saved it whether you did it on purpose to get the mayor in trouble or not.”
Aside from his celebrity as a local boy made good, Effron says Landon deserves a tribute from Collingswood because he was a humanitarian whose efforts touched many lives. Landon “did a lot of charity stuff before it was cool for movie and TV stars,” much of it to benefit children.
There’s also another personal connection to the story for Effron. Shortly after the dedication of the playground, her young son was diagnosed with cancer. When the Landon family found out, she says, they were more supportive than anyone else in her immediate circle of friends.
“I was working full time and the Landon family helped us,” she said. “We got home from the hospital and there was a bouquet of flowers. [Landon’s] sister would send him gifts every year for his birthday and Hanukkah.”
Her son is healthy, off chemotherapy, and in college now, but Effron says that story illustrates the generosity of the Landon family and the continuing legacy of the late Collingswood native—and that, she says, is worth preserving.
(Editor's Note: Abbe Effron's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.)