I have a distinct memory of watching Follow that Bird as a kid, sticking around through the end and into the credits, and watching Count von Count begin to count the names that scrolled by. As he read the credit for Executive Producer, The Count declares, “One Joan Ganz Cooney! Hi mom.”
“Hi mom”??? The Count has a mom? Or, does Sesame Street have a mom? Who was this person who deserved such a special shout-out? The younger version of me had no idea that anyone but Jim Henson could possibly be responsible for the creation of my favorite TV show. And yet, this Cooney person is regarded as the matriarch of Sesame Street according to one of its own residents.
It wasn’t until later when I learned about who Joan Ganz Cooney really is and how none of us would be where we are without her. Earlier this week, Ms. Cooney celebrated her 90th birthday. With Sesame Street‘s 50th anniversary celebration taking over the Muppet news cycle, it’s easy to lose track of other milestones like this.
Good news: we didn’t forget! And we’re here to celebrate the brilliant person who thought it would be a good idea to create a little TV show to help teach the fundamentals to kids.
It’s amazing to me that this whole thing started simply because Ms. Cooney thought to ask the question: Can television be used to educate young children? Can you believe that no one had truly, seriously wondered this before? At least, no one willing to put the time and effort into properly researching the topic and making it as broadly successful as it could be.
Of course, her contribution went far beyond the question. She secured funding, she hired the entire creative team, she established the Children’s Television Workshop, she served as Executive Producer, she testified in front of Congress, and she only achieved about 9,000 other goals along the way – both in the creation of Sesame Street and throughout its achievements over the next 50 years.
It’s an understatement to say that there would be no Sesame Street without Ms. Cooney. Without it, millions of kids from the past five decades wouldn’t have been nearly as prepared for primary school, and underprivileged youths would continue to be underserved. She made us smarter, more curious about the world, and more empathetic to others. Joan Ganz Cooney made us all better people, because her work made us better kids.
Beyond the world-changing effects of her TV show, she also created a program that introduced us to the work of Jim Henson, which inspired this writer, my colleagues at ToughPigs, and probably everyone reading this article. Sesame Street was a gateway to a love of the Muppets and the extended oeuvre of Jim Henson, and personally speaking, I owe my entire life to Ms. Cooney’s grand question.
Yes, television can be used to education children. It taught us not only to read and write, but to find joy in the arts and to appreciate its own history. Joan Ganz Cooney spearheaded a revolution in education, and we are eternally grateful for her work.
Happy 90th birthday, Joan Ganz Cooney! And thank you for literally everything.
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com