I was saddened yesterday to hear of the passing of a celebrity I admired and loved as a child. We didn’t have Mr. Rogers or Big Bird or Sponge Bob when I was growing up. We had Aunt Olly. Olly Penner hosted a program on the radio station CFAM for kids called Children’s Party and I was a devoted fan in my childhood. CFAM is now part of Golden West Radio. Like many families in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s we didn’t have a television and along with thousands of other children from all over western Canada and the central northern United States I sat near the radio every afternoon while Aunt Olly read stories like Tall Fireman Paul, Big Red and Nikki Nikki Timbo No So Rimbo and played funny songs like I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly.
If your mother sent in a request, Aunt Olly would also wish you a Happy Birthday over the air and even tell you where your Mom had hidden your present. In 1989 I was given an assignment to write a feature story about Olly Penner for the magazine The Mennonite Mirror and so I had the chance to interview my childhood idol. I found out that not only had she done a children’s program for CFAM she had also hosted a variety of other shows like Ladies First, Hints for Homemakers, The Garden Show and Social Calendar. She co-hosted the radio station’s morning show with anchor Jim McSweeny for 13 years. All this in a time when most women did not work outside the home, something she was criticized for by some radio listeners. She said the support of her husband Vic who was a newspaper editor but was often referred to by the public as ‘Aunt Olly’s husband’, made it possible for her to keep up with all her radio station commitments which included many public appearances. She also found time to write a regular newspaper column, publish a cook book, and be an active participant in several community organizations, all while raising two sons.
The day I interviewed her she showed me the thousands of fan letters she had received from children. Many had sent her photographs and drawings. But she also had fan mail from adults; grandparents who enjoyed her show, farmers who listened to her while driving their tractors, recent immigrants who said they were learning English by listening to her and parents who said they got their children to behave by threatening to take away the privilege of listening to Children’s Party. She even had a fan letter from a priest who said he’d ‘fallen in love with her voice’.
Olly retired in 1987 and when I interviewed her in 1989 she was already a grandmother and enjoying traveling with her husband and spending more time with her family. Olly Penner had a legion of fans in a time when media programming aimed specifically at children was a rarity. Thanks for the memories Aunt Olly.