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A Natural Honor

The Baltimore Sun

At 82, Jean Worthley occasionally drives by the old lodge to show the grandkids where their grandmother once worked. The lodge still stands, behind the Maryland Public Television building, although there is no hodge or podge - just creeping wineberries and Canada thistle, as identified by the zoologist and former TV host known as "Miss Jean."

From 1970 to 1977, Worthley was the maternal host of a children's program on MPT called The Hodgepodge Lodge that aired weekday afternoons on Channel 67. Her children and botanist husband would often guest star - as well as pairs of local children who appeared regularly on her nature program, which was syndicated mainly on the East Coast.

Thirty years later, it's time for a curtain call.

Her former station has created an award in her honor. Kevin Clash, the Baltimore native behind Sesame Street's Elmo, will be the first recipient of the 'Miss Jean' Worthley Award for Service to Families and Children. MPT's Vision Honors Banquet will be held Saturday at the Tremont Grand. Clash will be there, as will the award's namesake and most of her six grown children and four grandchildren.

"I loved Miss Jean's show. I thought it was sweet and wonderful," says Clash, 46. "She was very Mother-Naturish, which made her different than Mister Rogers and his make-believe. She was dealing with the environment already, which was wonderful."

Clash kind of wishes the banquet was at the lodge, where he could have his picture taken with Miss Jean. He has never forgotten her or the show's contagious theme song.

"We're off to the forest to see Miss Jean," jingled the opening song. As deliberate and placid as Mister Rogers, Miss Jean would welcome her young audience each day to her lodge and to the "Discovery Table," where a snake, turtle, rabbit or mole would be freed from her gunnysack. Almost every animal would appear. "Well, maybe not elephants," a boy named Brig Berney would recite while hanging upside down from a tree.

Her show wasn't just a televised petting zoo. There were field trips, tips on starting 4-H clubs and gentle reminders on caring for the environment. The show wasn't live; it just felt like it. A chain saw in the neighborhood halted filming once. There would be the occasional animal with stomach problems. A rooster might be on the loose. A week-old calf might shake loose from its halter.

And her parrot, Aurora, was always by Miss Jean's side - or rather on her shoulder. (Lived to be 38, that parrot. A female, it turned out.) To close each show, Miss Jean gave her "Queen Victoria" wave and asked children to "come back soon" to the Hodgepodge Lodge. The final credit read: "Have Fun With Nature."

After some 800, 28-minute-and-50-second shows on the back lot of MPT, Worthley - a former Episcopalian schoolteacher turned unlikely TV personality - hung up her gunnysack in 1977. It wasn't about ratings or money. It was just time.

With her new hip and older Subaru wagon (bumper sticker: "Have you hugged a Turtle Today?"), Worthley dropped by the Hodgepodge Lodge this week. Some 30 years later, the station has never had the will nor heart to take down the set. A 1970s photograph of Miss Jean hangs on the lodge's front door. For the camera, Miss Jean's hair would be up in a barrette. She never used much makeup. The crew pinned a picture of a smiling Campbell's soup kid on the camera to remind the host to smile.

Today, her hair is up, but she doesn't need a reminder to smile. Her laugh hasn't lost a step, nor has she lost her natural curiosity. Her leg is just sore from walking on the new hip. Someone brings her a chair.

"It's nice to finally meet you," says Michael Golden, MPT's communications director.

"Well, it's nice to be finally recognized after all these years," Worthley says.

Someone has a question.

"There are ants taking over an oak tree at my in-law's house. There's a lot of sawdust," says her former fill-in director, George Beneman, the station's vice president of technology. "Are the ants killing the tree?"

"Probably," says Miss Jean.

Another nature question.

"Do bullfrogs eat green frogs? I think bullfrogs are eating my green frogs," Beneman says.

Worthley says she does not believe bullfrogs eat green frogs.

Had anyone known she would be fielding questions, maybe the station could have set up a camera and recorded a reunion episode of The Hodgepodge Lodge. Miss Jean would be ready to go. She would just need a couple of kids who, as Worthley said back in the day, "would not run away with the show with their long stories." Then, there was the rare kid who would become speechless. Twenty-eight minutes and 50 seconds was a "long time to hold forth by yourself," as Worthley recalls.

Beginnings are often more interesting than endings, and Worthley's start in local children's programming is no exception. Her family had a 114-acre farm (dairy cows, workhorses, ducks, sheep) in the field just beyond MPT's parking lot. In 1969, MPT began building a studio by it.

"My mother and I saw this tower rising up over here, so we climbed under the fence," says Worthley, who later moved to an 18-acre, two-pond farm in Finksburg.

At the time, she thought maybe she could answer phones at the new studio, but her reputation as a kindergarten teacher and nature lover had preceded her. A television producer approached her about a nature show for children. After weeks of planning and settling on the name (rejected: Miss Jean: Forest Detective), The Hodgepodge Lodge debuted in January 1970. She was 45.

Weather-permitting, they recorded at the lodge. When it rained, they used the inside set in Studio A. The budget was nominal - the kids got a stipend and free cookies, and the host made more than she did when teaching half-days at a church school. Worthley's career highlight came in 1975 when she appeared on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. In the episode, she taught Fred Rogers how to make a terrarium. She had earlier tried to get Rogers to come to Baltimore, but he passed on appearing on The Hodgepodge Lodge.

In 1977, the program ended, but it aired another two years in reruns. There was no farewell show.

"It was a wonderful chapter in my life," Worthley says. "I felt like I was Cinderella - jumping from a kindergarten teacher to TV."

Worthley's grown viewers - some of whom became ecology majors, Audubon Society members or television producers - e-mail or call her still. Her husband, Elmer, passed away in 1991 on their 43rd wedding anniversary, but she still organizes the Worthley Botany Class he started. And she has her farm, a sort of lodge in itself.

Jean Worthley can be found in her work clothes patrolling her blueberry patch, where beavers have been feasting. She can be seen crawling on the ground, cutting back Japanese honeysuckle that's also invading her blueberries. Or, she might be enjoying the sight of that 5-foot black snake that's been around or her new favorite wildflower - a blue-eyed Mary.

Miss Jean is still having fun with nature.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

MPT Vision Honors

Clarisse Barron Mechanic Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Arts:

The Rosenberg Family, represented by Henry Rosenberg and Ruth Marder, for its support of area arts and culture, youth development, health and adult self-sufficiency Frederick Breitenfeld Award for Visionary Leadership in Public Media:

Dr. Frederick Breitenfeld Jr., for being a pioneer in educational and instructional television. He assisted with the creation of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Broadcasting, which led to the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, and became the first executive director of the Maryland Educational-Cultural Television Commission in 1966.

"Miss Jean" Worthley Award for Service to Families and Children:

Kevin Clash, the Emmy-winning puppeteer and creative force behind Sesame Street characters Elmo, Hoots the Owl and Baby Natasha

[Source: Maryland Public Television]

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