Jean Durkee was a schoolteacher, and happily so, in the late 1950s when her mother saw a newspaper advertisement for a host of a children’s TV show and suggested she apply.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she replied, before deciding to audition.
Chosen from among a few hundred applicants, she spent the next 14 years as “Miss Jean,” hosting Boston’s franchise of the popular “Romper Room” children’s show for preschoolers on Channel 5, which was then WHDH-TV.
With warmth and humor she made such an impression on viewers that decades after her “Romper Room” tenure ended in 1972, adults who had been fans as children were still delighted when she gazed through her glassless “magic mirror” as she did at the end of each show and called out their names — saying she could see them in their homes far away as she chanted:
“Romper, bomper, stomper, boo, tell me, tell me, tell me, do, magic mirror tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?”
Mrs. Durkee, who had moved years ago to Naples, Fla., where she kept painting and drawing even after a stroke in 1996, died there on Tuesday.
She was 90 and to the end remained “Miss Jean” to fans and Aunt Jean to her nieces and nephews, some of whom had joined the “Romper Room” audience when they were young.
“Miss Jean” was among many hostesses for local franchises of the show, which also had a syndicated version and was seen across the country.
Each hostess read to children, led them in songs and games, and served cookies and milk. Woven into their time together were lessons in manners and how to be good children, sometimes taught by the Mr. Do-Bee mascot, whose name was part of the instructions: Do be a Do-Bee, don’t be a Don’t-Bee.
“Romper Room” hostesses “taught generations of preschoolers to Do-Bee a Milk Drinker and Don’t-Bee a Spoilsport,” Bruce Edward Hall wrote in The New York Times in 1994, when the show signed off for the last time.
In a 2006 interview for Salem Statement, an alumni publication for what is now Salem State University, Mrs. Durkee said adult viewers offered input for the show’s content, too.
“Occasionally, parents would also write in and ask me to address certain behavioral issues their children were having,” she said.
“Dutifully, I’d try to work their request in at the end of the show, when I looked in my Magic Mirror to acknowledge children in the TV audience,” she recalled. “I can still remember one morning looking into the mirror and saying, ‘This morning I see Billy and Susie and Janet and Steven … and Bobby, please don’t walk on your little sister Beth! It hurts her and it’s not very nice!”
Those TV hours remained with fans as they grew up, became adults and parents themselves, and fondly looked back at what was a formative children’s TV experience.
“She would say things like, ‘Oh look, I see little Bobbie with his new bike,’ or ‘Congratulations, Sally, on that A+ you got in spelling,’ and ‘Happy birthday, Freddie,’ " wrote former radio personality Jimmy Del Ponte in a 2014 recollection of the show in his column for The Somerville Times.
“She would say these things while looking through the glassless handheld ‘magic’ mirror,” he wrote. “It was as if she was talking and looking right at you! Surely it was a thrill for a small child.”
During her time on the show and for years afterward “you couldn’t go anywhere that Jean was not recognized,” said her sister, Lee Hughes of Salem. “If anyone ever approached her, she didn’t try to hide. She was always nice to all of them.”
Born in Lynn on Feb. 27, 1933, Jean Dallaire was the oldest of four children and grew up in Salem.
Her mother, Tillie Moriarty Dallaire, was at home raising the children and also worked at a women’s apparel store. Mrs. Durkee’s father, Laurence Dallaire, worked in Texas with one of his brothers, before returning to Massachusetts and becoming the superintendent of a school for children from troubled families, Hughes said.
Mrs. Durkee graduated from St. James High School in Salem and attended what was then Salem Teachers College.
“She’s been beautiful her entire life,” Hughes said of her sister, who in high school won a contest to be part of the Marsha Jordan Council, which helped pick popular styles for teenagers at Jordan Marsh Co.
An education major with a concentration in English, Mrs. Durkee graduated from college in 1954.
“She was a very good student in school,” said her cousin Patricia Donovan of Springfield. “She was just plain talented and popular.”
While a student, she met and began dating Harry Agganis, the Boston University football player turned Red Sox first baseman who died in 1955, at 26, of a pulmonary embolism.
“He was her first great love,” Hughes said. “He died young and that broke her heart.”
Mrs. Durkee was a teacher at what was then Lynnfield Junior High School and a school in Lynn before becoming “Miss Jean” on “Romper Room.”
While hosting “Romper Room” she was in constant demand for appearances on behalf of nonprofits and at store openings. She also visited children in hospitals and marched in parades.
For most of her time on the show, she was Jean Harrington. Her marriage to Bill Harrington, a sportscaster and children’s TV host who portrayed “Nozo the Clown,” the brother of Bozo the Clown, ended in divorce.
She later married Bruce Durkee, who formerly led the Durkee-Mower company that produced Marshmallow Fluff.
The couple moved to Naples, where for a time she was an editor at a lifestyle magazine. He took care of her after her stroke, at 63, and she cared for him when he became ill and died of cancer in 2011.
“Family was the number one priority with Jean; it always was,” her sister said. “Not having children of her own, all the nieces and nephews were her children. She’d finish the TV show and she’d come to my house and play with my daughter.”
Jennifer Gilligan of Beverly, who is Hughes’s daughter, said Mrs. Durkee “really thought of us as her children and she kept in close contact with us.”
In her condo, Mrs. Durkee kept boxes labeled with the names of each of her nine nieces and nephews, filling them with cards and letters they exchanged, and with newspaper clippings featuring their accomplishments.
“She has been saving everything from and about the grandnieces and grandnephews, too,” Gilligan said.
Sometimes while running errands, Gilligan said, “I still hear people talking about being a good Do-Bee.’ I turn around and say, ‘Do you know where that came from?’ "
Mrs. Durkee’s sister is her only immediate survivor. The family will hold a private celebration of Mrs. Durkee’s life.
A testament to the impact of “Romper Room” and “Miss Jean” was the spirited competition to join the studio audience. At times parents waited weeks to secure spots for their children.
That popularity only added to the joy that Mrs. Durkee took in her work, she told Salem Statement magazine: “Who wouldn’t enjoy being adored by thousands of preschoolers?”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.