Click photo to enlarge

Nancy Besst of San Rafael, who appeared as the Bay Area's original Miss Nancy on the children's television show "Romper Room," died Aug. 14 after a long illness. She was 77.

"For those of us who were born and raised in the San Francisco area during the 1950s and '60s, 'Romper Room' was part of our television culture," said Forrest Patten, who met Miss Besst while organizing a gathering of former Bay Area children's television hosts.

"And for many of us, Miss Nancy Besst will always be the definitive hostess and teacher on the program. She was a female counterpart to Mr. Rogers: gentle and patient, bringing a child-like wonder to her many devoted viewers without being childish."

Born in Canton, Ohio, on May 25, 1934, Miss Besst graduated at the top of her class from that city's McKinley High School and was crowned "Miss Canton" in a beauty pageant. She studied journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., serving as women's sports editor of The Daily Northwestern at the same time that writer/director Garry Marshall was serving as men's sports editor.

In 1956, Miss Besst applied for a job with "Romper Room," a syndicated television show based in Baltimore and hosted by "Miss Nancy" Claster. During the early days of television, Miss Besst traveled throughout the country as a "Romper Room" staff teacher, helping television stations in other cities develop their own, franchised versions of the program and training other women to serve as hosts.

Having visited the Bay Area more than once during her travels, Miss Besst decided to settle there. In 1958, "Miss Nancy" Besst became the host of the San Francisco incarnation of "Romper Room," first at KGO and later at KTVU.

"'Romper Room' was the world's largest kindergarten," Miss Besst said in a 1988 Independent Journal interview. "We always tried to keep it natural and spontaneous."

As a live television show featuring young children, "Romper Room" often required Miss Besst to think fast on her feet. On one occasion, while performing a product demonstration, Miss Besst accidentally sprayed a young cast member in the eyes with Bactine. On another occasion, the show had booked a trained mynah bird named "Raja" who refused to talk -- until the very end of the show.

"Nancy turned to the bird and asked Raja if he had any last words for the boys and girls," Patten said. "As the camera zoomed in for a close-up, Raja looked straight into the lens and blurted out, 'one martini, please.'"

She continued to host the show for 11 years, retiring in 1969. In addition to "Romper Room" staples such as recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance and advice from the costumed Do Bee, Miss Besst placed her own mark on the show with the creation of "Willie the Weather Man," a segment that helped children figure out what clothes were appropriate to wear, depending on the weather.

During the last, and most famous segment of the show, Miss Besst looked through her "magic mirror" -- a decorated frame -- to "see" viewers in her television audience.

"People would come up to her for the rest of her life and say 'You never said my name,'" said her son, Pat Townsley of San Anselmo, who still has the "magic mirrors" his mother used on the program.

Miss Besst married Air Force Capt. Pat Townsley, a fighter pilot stationed at Hamilton Field in Novato, and settled in Terra Linda. In 1965, Mr. Townsley was killed when his F-101 Voodoo fighter-interceptor crashed into San Pablo Bay. Pat, the couple's only child, was born four days later.

After retiring from "Romper Room," Miss Besst became one of the six founding members of the San Francisco chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and served as official hostess of the Northern California Emmy Awards on several occasions. She was also active in fundraisers for many organizations, including the Marin County Cerebral Palsy Association, and was an advocate for positive, nonviolent children's television.

"TV is such a babysitter, and children are so vulnerable," Miss Besst said in 1988. "Learning should be made fun -- entertainment combined with education. We need more warmth."

In addition to her son, Miss Besst is survived by two grandchildren.