Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: She’s lived a good life entertaining, educating children

Karen Robbins — a former schoolteacher who, in the ’60s, went to Rochester, N.Y., to be “Romper Room” host Miss Karen — is now semi-retired but active as a children’s book author and inventor.
Karen Robbins — a former schoolteacher who, in the ’60s, went to Rochester, N.Y., to be “Romper Room” host Miss Karen — is now semi-retired but active as a children’s book author and inventor. Staff photographer

It didn’t take much to talk Karen Robbins into a costume, especially if it gave her the opportunity to entertain children.

Growing up in Sumner, she was Mrs. Claus on the Christmas she turned 17, then graduated to bigger roles — the Easter Bunny for Nalley’s Fine Foods Easter Egg Hunt in Tacoma, Karen the Clown for a University Place parade and Karen Kilowatt, the Washington recycling and energy ambassador.

And that didn’t count her year on the air in Rochester, New York, playing Miss Karen on the “Romper Room” children’s television show there.

“We all have gifts, and my gift from God was a love for children, entertaining and educating them,” she said.

So Robbins, who now lives in Gig Harbor, earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington, a master’s degree at the University of Puget Sound and became a schoolteacher.

She taught in University Place, then San Marino in California before being hired in 1969 at the age of 24 by the creators of “Romper Room.”

“I moved to New York and took the job for $100 a week and was on-air five days a week,” Robbins said.

“I loved the idea of reaching thousands of kids each morning, but most of the other ‘Romper Room’ teachers were married and their husbands worked. It was a tough way to make a living as a single woman.”

The memories of her year on the air make her smile — she still thinks everyone should be a “do-bee.” not a “don’t bee,” which “Romper Room” preached. She still recalls the set, which featured six children.

“The creators of the program lived in Baltimore, but there were franchised shows all across the country,” Robbins said. “They each followed a format of teaching and entertainment.”

Robbins came home to the Northwest, married and had four sons, including twins. She and her husband divorced once their sons were grown, leaving Robbins with five grandchildren and one regret.

“I never went back to teaching,” she said. “I never got to see what I could do  .”

Still, the creative energy she felt couldn’t be contained. She wrote, she invented, she created books and games.

Two of Robbins’ stories went into a 1987 anthology. The book, “Year ’Round Holiday Crafts,” sold 116,000 copies. She did a book on producing children-oriented bulletin boards, a children’s book on the American flag — “My Red, White and Blue,” which sold about 50,000 copies.

“I’m a creator, and I have ideas all day long,” Robbins said. “I have them lying awake at night.”

She came up with shoe print art — drawing projects that began with a simple shoe print.

Her favorite completed project might be a children’s book that’s sold alone or in a box that includes a play set.

“I’d never written in rhyme until this book,” Robbins said. “I wanted to show animals on all seven continents, so I did lots of research. I wanted to send the message of caring for this planet.”

Once she moved to Gig Harbor, Robbins threw herself into the community, volunteering with the Harbor History Museum, the Gig Harbor Film Festival and the Peninsula Art League.

“It’s a friendly community with so many good people,” she said.

There is so much she wants to do, and Robbins feels a daily sense of urgency to do it. Three years ago, she had a minor stroke. Though she recovered, it heightened her sense of mortality.

“I write every day,” Robbins said. “I work on books, write poetry, stories, create games. I have one, the Monkey Game, my grandchildren love.”

Robbins has dealt with her share of rejection in the children’s publishing industry. It never slowed her down.

“I’ve always believed in being kind, and I think when you are kind and giving, it will come back to you,” she said. “I feel like this is my last chapter, and I have so many things I want to do.”

“I’ve been lucky my whole life. I found my gift early — my love of children and being creative. I wrote a series of silly/funny poems about fruits and vegetables and foods kids love.

“I didn’t know if they worked, so I went to a meeting of writers at the Key Peninsula Library, and they laughed in all the right places. They made positive suggestions.

“That was a wonderful afternoon for me.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638