Roberta Jo English, Sesame Workshop’s VP of North American Television, died Thursday in Columbia, Md., after a brief battle with cancer. She was 57.
English, known to colleagues and friends as “Bobbi,” began her career in television news in 1985, when she took her first job as a producer for WAOW, an ABC affiliate in Wausau, Wis. She made a career switch to public TV a few years later, when she became an assistant program director for WGTE in Toledo, Ohio.
In 1994, English became an assistant program manager for Maryland Public Television. A year later, she met her future husband, Michael English, an MPT producer who is now the state network’s managing director of content.
Bobbi was already interested in working for the workshop when he met her, Michael English said. Like millions of others, she had a great admiration for its groundbreaking preschool education series, Sesame Street.
Bobbi English moved to WETA in Washington, D.C., in 1996 to become VP of station relations. In 2001 she landed her dream job with Sesame Workshop, a position she held for almost 19 years.
Sesame Workshop President and CEO Jeffrey Dunn said English played a key role in cementing the company’s longtime partnership with PBS.
“Bobbi embodied the very best of us,” Dunn said. “She lived the values espoused by Sesame Street that everyone, no matter who you are or where you are from, is deserving of respect, opportunity and love.”
“She’s that person who wants to serve the underserved. She loved the idea of helping kids reach their full potential,” Michael English said. “She knew that if public TV was used correctly, it could make people’s lives better. She felt that Sesame was the best way to do so.”
“When you commit yourself like that, and on top of it add the beautiful heart that she had, and the optimism and kindness that she showed to everyone no matter who they were … you can make a big difference in this world,” English said. “And while she was here, she did.”
English was instrumental in helping Sesame Street expand its community-based outreach in smaller markets, said Scott Chambers, SVP and GM of North America media and licensing, her supervisor.
A $300,000 CPB grant that English helped secure supported education outreach at PBS stations in 10 underserved rural communities from Alaska to Alabama. The project extended the reach of the educational activities tied to last year’s Sesame Street 50th anniversary, Chambers said. “Each station received resources and professional development training from our ‘Sesame Street in Communities’ initiative, and in-turn provided much-needed resources to tens of thousands of families in need.”
English worked with PBS stations to distribute nearly 10,000 Sesame-produced toolkits to help families cope with grief, parental addiction, family homelessness and emergency preparedness, Chambers said. She was also involved in guiding Sesame Workshop’s content partnership with HBO.
PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger also spoke highly of English’s work to advance public television’s national and local impact.
“Bobbi was tireless in pursuing every opportunity to maximize the hope and possibility that the partnership between Sesame Workshop and our stations offers to the families we serve,” Kerger said. “Her extraordinary commitment and endless enthusiasm was inspirational, and she will be deeply missed.”
Ruby Calvert, a CPB board member who retired in 2015 as GM of Wyoming PBS, honored English in a statement naming her to the Public Media Honor Roll.
“… Bobbi loved her job, and everyone who knew or worked with Bobbi loved her. She was one of those special people who brought joy, laughter and friendship to everyone she touched,” Calvert said.
English was born in Fort Atkinson, Wis., where her father owned a clothing store on Main Street and her mother taught third grade. English graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1984, about 45 minutes away from her hometown.
English is survived by her husband, Michael; their two daughters, Claire English and Sarah Leisawitz; her son-in-law, Alex Leisawitz; her mother, Joanne Smith; and her three brothers, Mark Smith, Paul Smith and Jim Smith.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this story previously said Michael English is managing director of Maryland Public Television. He is managing director of content.