Joan Ganz Cooney, 78, is founder of the Children’s Television Workshop and “mom” of Sesame Street; she transformed her own altruism and a lifelong curiosity into Big Bird’s brownstone neighborhood, a stealth classroom where millions of kids have learned everything—from math to manners—from the likes of Kermit, Oscar, Cookie Monster, Fozzie, and all their wisecracking (and wise) pals.
Q: Did you start out wanting to change the world?
A: Well, I was brought up Catholic, and even as a little girl I was affected by the idea of giving back—doing something for the needy, something of significance. I was very influenced by a Maryknoll priest, Father James Keller, who founded a movement called the Christophers. Their motto was: “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” He had a radio show, a newsletter, a newspaper column, later on a TV show—he knew the power of communication. And he said that idealists should be going into the media, otherwise the media would be unidealistic.
Q: How did you get from that to educational television for children?
A: My degree was in education, but the idea of being a teacher lost out to being a reporter. I worked at a newspaper for a while, then went to New York and worked in PR at RCA and NBC, and at The United States Steel Hour, a drama series. There was a court fight going over channel 13—educational broadcasting wanted it to go from a commercial station to a public education station, which was still a very new concept; when they won, I asked if I could their do publicity. The head of the station said no, but they needed producers. I don’t know why, exactly, but I said, “Oh, I can do that!” and then I started calling everybody I knew. We did documentaries—one on Head Start, another on poverty. I was struck by the plight of the kids, and what poverty was doing to them…. The question for me was, could TV actually teach? I knew it could, because I knew 3-year-olds who sang beer commercials!
Q: Are you still as emotionally connected to Sesame Street as you were 40 years ago?
A: Maybe even more so now. Watching it with my granddaughter when she was nine months old was the first time I understood it in the most personal way. She would sit on my lap, rapt, watching the characters and laughing. I actually watched her learn to count, it was amazing. I had seen the research that said it was happening, I’d been in the classrooms, but to see it in this child’s face, this child that I loved, was magical.