REGINA — For decades, Saskatchewan received a double dose of love from Bob McGrath.
As one of the original cast members of "Sesame Street," McGrath was known for stealing people's hearts through their television screens.
He later became a legend in another way in Saskatchewan — as a friendly neighbour.
McGrath, 90, died at his home in New Jersey on Sunday surrounded by family.
For nearly 40 years, McGrath was a fixture on the Prairies with Saskatchewan's annual Kinsmen Foundation fundraiser called TeleMiracle, which helps local charities and communities.
"We got to know him on this whole other level," said singer-songwriter Jeffery Straker, who co-hosted the fundraiser with McGrath for 10 years. They also shared a dressing room.
"He loved the idea that there was this telethon where it was these people calling in — not because they had to, but because they wanted to — and they were doing it because they knew they were helping their neighbours and people in their own community," said Straker.
McGrath became Saskatchewan's longest-serving TeleMiracle host after joining in 1977 and retiring in 2015.
"On 'Sesame Street,' we saw him as a fictional character who was living in this fictional land and introducing us to people in the neighbourhood," Straker said.
"On TeleMiracle, he helped us realize that we should help the people in our neighbourhood. It was like this extra helping of this giant heart that he had. He was a double celebrity in Saskatchewan."
Canadian country artist Brad Johner said generations of Saskatchewan children, including his own, learned from McGrath how to give back.
"People all across North America grew up with Bob teaching them how to count and teaching them their ABCs," Johner said.
He worked with McGrath for about 20 years on the telethon.
"I don't know if that will ever happen again — to have somebody of his magnitude come to our province."
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe acknowledged on Twitter the millions of dollars McGrath helped raise: "Thank you for your generosity to the people of Saskatchewan."
Those who worked alongside McGrath on TeleMiracle said he was exactly who he was on "Sesame Street." He also loved old Irish songs and knew how to stop people in their tracks with a good joke.
McGrath was a founding cast member of "Sesame Street" when the show premiered in 1969, playing friendly neighbour Bob Johnson. He made his final appearance on the show in 2017, marking an almost five-decade-long run in the "Sesame Street" world.
Straker said McGrath joked during a recent visit in New York that he almost didn't audition for "Sesame Street," thinking that a children's show with puppets would never work.
But those who knew him attribute the success of the show — and TeleMiracle — to the man he was.
The actor grew up in Illinois and studied music at the University of Michigan and Manhattan School of Music. He also was a singer in the '60s series "Sing Along With Mitch'' and launched a successful music career in Japan.
"I think if you asked him who he was, it would be that he’s a singer. He just loved singing and he knew how to sing," said Johner.
Canadian country music singer-songwriter Beverley Mahood said working beside McGrath on TeleMiracle was the greatest gift of her life.
"From showing human kindness, or showing how to speak to one person — a sick child or to console a grieving parent — or how to speak to an audience through a camera, he could make people cry or make them all laugh," said Mahood.
"He just had a real sensibility about human compassion and human kindness that I have never seen in my life, other than with Bob."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2022.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press