You might say that Joan Ganz Cooney is Big Bird's mother.
Cooney is one of the creative forces behind Sesame Street, the wildly successful children's television show. It all started at a dinner party she threw back in 1966, when a new idea started with a simple conversation.
"Lloyd Morrisett was at the Carnegie Foundation, which was at the time doing a lot of research in child development and how children learn," Cooney recalled. "He had two little girls who he'd found watching a test pattern one morning on television."
Morrisett wondered to himself whether television could teach children, and if something could be done on the air.
"So he called the next day and said come over to Carnegie, and that was how it got rolling," Cooney said.
Many who first heard about Sesame Street said the idea wouldn't work. But now, millions of kids have been raised on the program, and Cooney became den mother to a generation of children and educators. But she is also a den mother to an incredible circle of friends, including Good Morning America's own Diane Sawyer.
In addition to the networking that helped launch her career with Sesame Street, Cooney is at the center of a wheel of friendship, a "connector" friend. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell coined the phrase "connector" in his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, about a select category of people, who have a very wide net of acquaintances, from different fields, and get a message or trend out faster than the rest of us.
Making Time for Friends
A brand new study from the University of Michigan has found that people who socialize a lot have better short-term memory and are more alert.
Cooney admits that as a woman who is running a company and who has a family, friendship takes time.
"But it seems to be so integral to my life," she said. "Let's say you have children, a husband and children and are working, and people say, how do you have time for your children? And you say what? You do it."
One of her friends is Holly Peterson, who says Cooney is always there to lend an ear.
"I think the most important thing about being a friend is listening to other people's concerns and listening to their problems, and Joan is an expert at listening," Peterson said. "So she gets on the phone at 9:30 in the morning after yoga and starts listening. And it goes from girlfriend to girlfriend to girlfriend to girlfriend."
An Influential Circle
Many of the most influential women in New York. seek out Cooney's friendship because she is a truth teller, who can bolt friends out of their habits.
"There are different kinds of love that people show in friendship. Joan's love is really kind of unique," said author Peggy Noonan. "When Joan Cooney is zeroing in on some part of your life that isn't working or some part of you that isn't working completely it's a thing to behold."
Though Cooney is not a mom, she is incredibly maternal, her friend Marie Brenner said.
"Joan is so maternal which is such a great, so fascinating because it's as if not having had her own children, she is the mother of the children of the world," Brenner said. "And certainly the mother of her friends."
Lesley Stahl, of 60 Minutes, also counts on her as a truth teller.
"I love talking to her." Stahl said. "If I want the best advice, the most honest advice, the truest. You know, when someone hits the note just right, I'll call Joan."
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