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."
When a Friend ‘Looks Like Hell’
The truth might not always easy to hear. Stahl has even heard Cooney tell Diane Sawyer, "Diane, you look like hell." Their other friends shudder, and Sawyer laughs, and admits that Cooney is correct.
"It's not about being unkind, but it requires a willingness to take a chance with somebody," Sawyer told Cooney. "It just seems to me you're extremely brave and brave is loving."
Cooney says that bravery has nothing to do with it.
"I can't be friends with people that I can't say, you know, here's how I look at this," she said. "It's sort of the producer in me. I see all of life as a production and all of my friends' lives are a production and if something is going wrong, it's got to be fixed, if I can fix it."
Through seasons of career and personal transitions, Cooney has always been there for Sawyer, "to laugh with me when I need to laugh, to give me that little extra nudge when I'm stuck," Sawyer said. "She's the connective glue for my circle of friends — and I can't imagine her any other way."
To Cooney, friendship is as natural as breathing, and speaking her mind to help friends makes her feel better.
"It is as natural to me as breathing, to care about the people I care about and to want to keep up with their little or big soap operas in their lives and to say, 'well, I think you're not writing this story as well as you might; it might be written this way — and then I feel better that at least I've said it," Cooney said. "So I get much more than I give."