Today is Bob McGrath’s birthday. You may have heard of him because you’ve gone to school with one of his relatives. You may know him as the author of children’s books such as "Uh Oh! Gotta Go!" Or perhaps from his career as a singer of Irish and American folk songs translated into Japanese. But you probably know him from his role as Bob Johnson on "Sesame Street," the beloved, long-running PBS television series.
And also from the mural dedicated to him on the side of Jefferson Elementary School in Ottawa, at the corner of Norris Drive and Columbus Street. Born and raised in Ottawa, Bob graduated from Marquette back in 1950, going on to a music degree at the University of Michigan. Thinking about his career, it occurs to me looking back across his 87 years in the world must make for an especially breathtaking view.
I once heard another Bob – Bob Eschbach, until recently the mayor of Ottawa – quip that, in his youth, a “mixed marriage” meant one between a Norwegian and a Swede. The 21st Century has, however, brought about some changes in how people think about marriage in particular and culture in general. Thinking about the mural on the side of Jefferson School, I am reminded of watching Sesame Street back when I was a kid myself. The show has always been a vision of diversity and inclusion and speaks powerfully of the need for empathy and imagination.
I like to think that Bob McGrath brought the Illinois Valley with him when he went to New York City. Sesame Street is, of course, a reflection of the polyglot metropolis where it was created, but through the magic of television, it’s become part of the culture everywhere in the United States. At the heart of the program is a story about a neighborhood. People (and in this case, also Muppets) live there together, sharing the living of each other’s lives, as found everywhere in the world, in small towns and big cities alike.
Being part of a neighborhood is something special. Americans, on average, move between 11 and 12 times in their lives – it takes years to build up trusted connections in a given place, and when you move, you lose them. There are likely millions of Americans at any given time who barely know their neighbors, and maybe that’s part of why social media is so popular these days. When you are part of a neighborhood, you learn to meet people where they are, and you find ways to include others. Sometimes it’s a casual sidewalk conversation, or even just a wave. Sometimes it’s the holidays, or maybe it’s just summer and everyone’s out. Over time all those little interactions add up, and you become part of something bigger than yourself.
I moved to the Illinois Valley only a few years ago and I still feel like a new guy in town but knowing that a piece of Ottawa went into creating Sesame Street makes me feel a little more at home here. Thanks, Bob – and happy birthday!
SAMUEL BARBOUR lives in Ottawa and teaches economics to community college students. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.