Children’s folksinger Ella Jenkins in 2014 at Storyteller Corner at Bauler Playlot Park, which was dedicated to her.

Children’s folksinger Ella Jenkins in 2014 at Storyteller Corner at Bauler Playlot Park, which was dedicated to her.

Sun-Times file

Beloved children’s singer Ella Jenkins turning 99 Sunday with a party at a North Side park that bears her name

“I used to plan every day,” she says. “Now, I just say one day at a time — and maybe have some peppermint ice cream.”

Legendary children’s musician Ella Jenkins turns 99 Sunday. She’s still rhyming, singing and playing with words. And she’s having a little party to celebrate.

“I was feeling great until they told me I was 98,” Jenkins said in an interview via a video call from her apartment at an assisted-living facility on the North Side where she has lived for about a decade.

“I take one day at a time. I used to plan every day. Now, I just say one day at a time — and maybe have some peppermint ice cream.”

She still plays her harmonica and her kazoo. But she has retired her ukulele because her hands don’t work the way they used to.

A friend from her assisted-living center helped set up the video call and said another friend recently delivered a plant with a funny memento stashed in it: a kazoo.

“The kazoo is for you!” Jenkins chimed in with a laugh.

Friends from her old neighborhood in Lincoln Park are throwing her a birthday party from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Ella Jenkins Park, 333 W. Wisconsin St. It’s open to all, with cake, music, face-painting, balloons and maybe Jenkins, too, if she’s up for it.

Jenkins’ last appearance in front of a live audience was in 2017. For several years, she has needed a wheelchair to get around. And, like anyone approaching 100, has good days and bad days.

One part of her that remains as strong as ever is her love of children.

“It’s a big deal when she sees kids,” said her longtime manager and friend Bernadelle Richter. “It’s like an infusion for her. She’s always thinking about kids and how the world relates to them and how they relate to the world.”

Erin Flynn, a friend, musician and music teacher at a North Chicago elementary school, held a video call from her classroom with Jenkins in May and said Jenkins was uplifted by the experience.

“She was so happy,” Flynn said. “She just clicked in and began singing her song ‘Did You Feed My Cow?’ She does it, and then suddenly you’re doing it, whistling, making a silly clucking sound, finding joy. That’s her magic.”

Jenkins, who never married or had kids, relies on a close group of friends for support, including Tim Ferrin.

“She is a person of extreme integrity and love, and she may be 98, but she’s still that same person,” said Ferrin, a filmmaker who has become like family since he began putting together a documentary about Jenkins a few years ago. “She’s a brilliant and loving person, and she operates out of that.”

For decades, a townhouse down the street from the park named in her honor was Jenkins’ home base as she traveled the world, singing to children, recording albums — more than 40 — and teaching her call-and-response style music to teachers at child development conferences.

She has been called the First Lady of Children’s Music, bestowed a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and seen her work immortalized in the Library of Congress.

She was born in St. Louis but grew up on the South Side near Washington Park. As a kid, she loved hearing her uncle, a steelworker, play the harmonica. She was inspired after seeing Cab Calloway perform to create call-and-response music. Some of her first listeners were kids at a YWCA at 62nd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, where she worked as a program director in the 1950s.

Deirdre Graziano, who’s helping organize the birthday party with the Old Town Triangle Association and Lincoln Central Association, remembers seeing Jenkins out for walks in the 1970s and being too shy to introduce herself.

“I was so in awe of her,” Graziano said. “She’d be walking her longhaired dachshund. And finally I was out walking my dog, and we got talking the way dog people do. But she lived here with little fanfare. People were very respectful of her. Our love affair with Ella has been going on for years and years and years.”

Graziano likens Jenkins to TV host Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers, and folk singer Pete Seeger, as American icons who have shown “absolute gentleness and love” while sharing messages of acceptance toward others.

“What the world needs is more Ella, Pete and Fred,” she said. “Pete and Fred are dead. But we still have Ella.”

Asked about her many accomplishments, Jenkins instead leaned into lyrics from one of her classics and offered a little advice.

“We’re all in this world together in warm or wintry weather,” she said. “Just be yourself.”

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