Editor’s Note: Peggy Charren, an advocate for children’s rights who founded Action for Children’s Television, died on Jan. 22 at her home in Dedham. She was a longtime summer resident of Chilmark. What follows is an interview published in the Gazette in August of 2000. 

Charmed by her warmth and her genial presence, one might forget that she is a warrior, commissioned with the simple and clear logic of her principles and armed with the ferocious innocence of all things possible.

Peggy Charren sits in a lawn chair, squinting into the sun as she surveys the slow-dancing boats on Clam Cove. She is nonchalantly skimming the details of when and how she founded Action for Children’s Television (ACT) and changed the course of children’s television programming; was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995), the Peabody Award (1992); the Women Who Make A Difference Award from the International Women’s Forum (1996); and an Emmy (1988). She smiles as if she’s known you long and well, and tries to suggest that it all just happened.

“I used to run children’s book fairs. In theory I could be doing that now.” The rhythm and lilt in her slightly gritty voice signals a born-and-bred Manhattanite. “But when my second daughter was born, I couldn’t get out of the house because I couldn’t get my day care organized,” she explains. “So the whole thing started because of lousy day care . . . .” The laugh is contagious. “And I thought, why don’t I get some book-based programs on television?”

As she outlines the role of the media and the politics of change, her enthusiasm ripples and descriptions of this person or that fact are seasoned with “nifty” and “delicious.” She says she remembers thinking, “What can we do to get more delicious choices for children on television . . . ?”

What she did, from her home in Newtonville, was to gather about 20 people from boardrooms, carpools, broadcasting and academia and founded ACT. The mission, she says, was “to get an industry to provide what they’re supposed to be providing, and yet not interfere with the free speech aspect of the constitution. You can’t tell them what to put on anymore than you can tell them what to take off . . . I am violently opposed to censorship as a way of dealing with speech issues. I took the position that censorship is worse than any kind of junk. And I still feel that way. What I did was try and create a market for what was missing.”

ACT attracted the participation of an elite fraternity of experts, foundations, related children’s associations and media support. It dusted off the Communications Act of 1934 which stated that in return for a license, stations had to serve public interest. “And I took that hook and said it was not in the public interest of children to have wall-to-wall monster cartoons and nothing else. . . . By saying that the law says children are entitled to choice and diversity, the Federal Communications Commission paid attention,” and it’s easy to see how mountains are moved. She smiles, “I have come to see the law as a tremendous change agent for good.”

Her influence hasn’t been confined to programming. Mrs. Charren recounts her ultimately successful campaign to outlaw the manufacture and selling of children’s medication in the shape of cartoon characters. “In 1971 we noticed that one-third of advertising was for pills directed at children,” she says. “As we’re putting this together we got a clipping about a young boy who was in a coma from ingesting a whole bottle of Flintstone vitamins. When asked why he took the pills, he said it was because Captain Kangaroo told him to . . . .” She smiles a victor’s smile. “So that’s what I mean by being specific. The concern is general, but the applications were focused in a very specific way. . . . Now isn’t that a good story!”

Mrs. Charren pauses to inquire about the comfort of her guest — something to drink, perhaps — and then confesses that she is always trying to improve things. “Little Miss Fix It,” she calls herself, and looking slightly bemused, recalls, “My children didn’t want to go out to dinner with me because they were afraid I would send back the meal, saying I was going to help in the kitchen so they would learn how to cook whatever it was better.”

This afternoon, with its full compliment of the music, shapes and colors of Menemsha Pond, requires no improvement. Each window of the sprawling, contemporary home the Charrens built in the late 1960s is a deliberate frame for the shifting canvas of the pond. “I feel as if I died and went to heaven,” Mrs. Charren says, “and that feeling never goes away.”

She has been married for almost 50 years to entrepreneur Stanley Charren, and she says, “The best thing about who I am is that I have found an absolutely perfect husband. And he has been an extraordinary help. I have learned from him that you don’t have to use making money as an excuse to destroy the planet.” (Stanley Charren’s company, U.S. Windpower, designed the wind plant system currently operating in Northern California.) She is not able to resist another quick thought, “My life is just so nifty.”

The topic turns to public television (Mrs. Charren is on the Boston WGBH board of trustees): “nifty” websites, transforming effects, the importance of closed captioning. Her conversation is punctuated with anecdotes and statistics and she gratefully acknowledges the impact of journalism on public awareness.

Although ACT has been dissolved, the press, from The New York Times to the National Inquirer, continues to call her about constitutional, media and children’s issues. She shrugs. “Heaven only knows. They call. And I thought when I was just a grandma, who’s going to call? Well, if anything, I get more calls now,” she says. “People give me all kinds of pats on the back, but they should only know that it’s been an extraordinarily delightful experience for me.”