Ken Sobol (March 10, 1938 – August 5, 2010)

On August 5th Ken Sobol died peacefully in his sleep, after a long illness and in the presence of members of his family, only a few weeks before his 50th wedding anniversary. He leaves behind his beloved wife Julie (née Macfie), his children John (Annie Hillis), Corry (Greg Clarke) and Jane (William Sanchez) and grandchildren Julian, Elliot, Louis, Sophie, Ximena and Lara. He is also survived by his sister Debbie (Fred Hatch).

Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Ken graduated from Oberlin College in 1959, along with his wife-to-be Julie. After marrying they moved to New York City and immersed themselves in the Bohemian scene they found there. Ken received an M.A. from Columbia while in New York, but his real passion was writing. In 1959, an over-the-transom piece he wrote on impulse was published in the fledgling alternative newspaper The Village Voice. Ken would become a regular contributor to the Voice over the next 15 years, writing on local politics, television and civil rights.

In 1974, having written an Emmy Award-winning children’s television program (Inside/Out), Ken moved his family to Toronto where he would become a key figure in the creative heyday of OECA (now TVO). Among the many shows he created and wrote were Magic Shadows with Elwy Yost, and two of TVO’s most celebrated children’s programs — Readalong and Telefrancais. Later Ken and puppeteer Noreen Young, who had fashioned the colourful puppets for these two series, would team up to create Under the Umbrella Tree, which ran for many years on CBC. In the mid-70s Ken also co-created and co-hosted Media Circus, an extraordinarily adventurous TV program about TV; Northrop Frye and Marshall MacLuhan were among the guests.

Over the years Ken wrote many animated shows, including some of Nelvana’s early successes (A Cosmic Christmas, The Devil and Daniel Mouse), and more recently – having received author Astrid Lindgren’s personal blessing – the Pippi Longstocking TV series. Other animated series he wrote included Batman, Superman, George of the Jungle, Highlander, Karlsson on the Roof, Curious George, G.I. Joe, The Hardy Boys and The Wizard of Id, to name but a few.

Ken’s books include Babe Ruth and the American Dream (Random House, 1972) and several books for children. Eventually he began working in collaboration with Julie; together the pair wrote many articles for Canadian Geographic magazine, as well as two books: Looking For Lake Erie (Penguin, 1996), and Lake Erie – A Pictorial History, (Boston Mills, 2004).

Ken was a wonderful husband, father and writer. Outspoken and blunt, sometimes irascible, his friends also knew him to be humble and generous; he possessed a profound sense of justice and a clever sense of humour. He was proud to have become a Canadian citizen, and passionately loved his adopted country of Canada.

His other interests included neolithic monuments (he and Julie visited Stonehenge, Carnac and Avebury among other sites), world history, poetry, antique maps, folk art, birds, sports (he was a big Raptors fan) and jazz. He was interested in all forms of creativity and had an encyclopedic knowledge of many contemporary and historic idioms.

Ken was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, a little-understood but common degenerative disease, three years ago. He was cared for lovingly at home by Julie until being admitted to Toronto Western Hospital in June and then to Kensington Health Centre where he received exceptional care. The family wishes particularly to thank Miriam and Marta for their hands-on kindness.

A celebration of his life will be held at the Steven Bulger Gallery at 1026 Queen Street West in Toronto at 1 p.m., August 22nd.

Donations in lieu of flowers may be sent to St. Christopher House.

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16 Responses to Ken Sobol (March 10, 1938 – August 5, 2010)

  1. R Vandenberg says:


    I’m saddened to hear of the death of Ken Sobol. I’m a core French teacher who uses Telefrancais in my classroom. The kids love the zany characters and the progression of the French language is easy to follow. I would love to see Telefrancais available on DVD. I know there are other teachers who still use this series as well, but the vhs tapes are disappearing. If there is anyone who could make this possible (make the series available on dvd), there are scores of French core teachers who would appreciate it.

  2. Karen Niemla says:

    Goodness, I do wish I’d known more about this guy before his passing! I saw Under the Umbrella Tree as a kid, but I only recently discovered Téléfrançais, which was before my time. Telefrancais is really good, so creative and unique. It hasn’t been forgotten. Here is a NSFW (*not safe for work!*) tribute cartoon many people got together and made in 2009. It’s affectionate in a NSFW unsentimental young art student way.

    I also saw some pictures of Readalong online and somehow I remembered it! “It’s the shoe and the boot! O_O ” Wish there were more video clips floating around.

    And I should get my hands on “Lake Erie: A Pictorial History” and “Looking for Lake Erie” sometime. I grew up the USA 1 mile away from Lake Erie (which is how we could get Canadian broadcast TV, you see) in Erie County. I moved away 5 years ago but the Lake Erie area will always be “home” to me.

    Au revoir, Mr.Sobol. People you never knew are still thinking of you.

  3. Jimmy Keary says:

    To the family of Ken Sobol,

    When I was growing up in the late 1960s, Mr. Sobol’s scripts for a Filmation series called ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ gave me great enjoyment. I was watching part of that series on YouTube today and was prompted to google his name. I was saddened to learn of his death last year. May I offer you all my deepest sympathy.

    I’m sure he will always live on for you through cherished memories and for his many fans through his writings. May he rest in peace.

    Jimmy Keary

  4. Andy Mangels says:

    For a book project I’m working on about Filmation, I’d like to have contact with anyone from Ken’s family who might be dealing with his paperwork. I’d like to be sure his legacy is remembered.

  5. Gordon says:

    I didn’t know Ken, but his TV work was as ubiquitous in my 1970s childhood home as milk and cookies, winter and summer. We lost our mom to the same form of dementia several years ago… I miss her very much and get quite emotional when I think of the last few years of her life, how difficult they were. My sympathies to Ken’s family for their loss.

  6. Julia says:

    Dear Julie, John, Corry and Jane,

    I was sad to hear a few years ago about how ill Ken had become, and just this afternoon to learn that he had passed away. I have memories of time spent with him and his high-strung, chicken-eating dog out in the sloppy winter fields of Alexandria, and of sitting down to dinner at the farmhouse table, while he grumbled about the latest low-cholesterol diet his doctors had prescribed. Do you remember the “10 almond a day regime”?! I also remember many a great and greasy compensatory meal at The Main or Deer Garden in Montreal.

    Ken’s straight-from-the-hip delivery and razor-sharp mind made him equally daunting and entertaining as a conversationalist. This, plus his hipness, his humour, and his love of music and art made him seem like a pretty cool parent by any standards. The ultimate proof of this is, of course, in the brave and creative paths he encouraged his children and teens to take. I’m glad to have been close to all of you, all those years ago.

    In sympathy,

  7. Carol Jones says:

    Dear Julie and family – I was very saddened to read of Kens passing. I was a Script Assistant at tvo and worked on many of his scripts – including a very memorable film shoot when you were living in a wonderful brownstone in New York. We used your house as our base. Ken managed to book us into the most frightening hotel!! – where the desk clerk advised us to share a room for safety!! This was for the award winning series Inside-Out, I also worked on the wonderful series Telefrancais with that feisty little Anana and later Magic Shadows. So I was among one of the lucky people to enjoy Kens wonderful scripts. I have to admit I was also a little frightened of him, especially if his script was late and he would bark at me over the phone! but also had great admiration for him, and the privilage of working with him. Rest in peace – dear Ken

    Warmest wishes to all the family – Carol Jones (nee Docwra)

  8. Zoe Kerrigan and David Oxilia says:

    Dear Jane, Julie, Corry and John,

    I would like to wish you my deepest condolences. You were like a second family to me growing up and Ken was most definitely the hippest dad I knew. I always liked him despite his occasional tough exterior and saw him more as a sensitive, kind and fair man with a good sense of humor and a great deal of depth. He was smarter and definitely more cultured than most but more importantly he was a good dad and this I know because of my friendship with Jane for the past thirty years.

    I believe among other things he past on a sense of strength, adventure and great loyalty to all of you. We will miss him dearly…

    Lots of love,

    Zoe, David and family

  9. Vicky Compton says:

    Dear John, Julie, Cory and Jane,
    So sorry to hear about Ken’s death and also very sorry that I cannot attend the memorial service tomorrow. Whoops! I remember him chiding me for being “sorry” for everything, and here I’ve used the word twice already!
    I’ve been thinking about Ken a lot since I read your tribute last night. I first met him 27 years ago! He wasn’t like most of my friends’ parents…Ken was up on popular culture; he disliked B.S. and said what he thought; he believed in us even though we were young and encouraged us to open our minds to new places, new experiences, new ways of thinking; he attended concerts at Les Foufounes Electriques; he talked to us as equals and didn’t patronize; he had sideburns and aviator sunglasses; he knew tons about avant garde artistic movements, beat poets and free jazz; he wrote for television. I definitely found him a bit intimidating, but for a Dad, he was pretty cool.
    He was generous and supportive as Cory and I moved into our first apartment together, welcoming when I joined a family holiday in France, and later, at parties and dinners hosted by Cory and Greg in Toronto, Ken was an easy conversationalist, interested in what I was doing, and always full of the fascinating writing projects that he embarked on collaboratively with Julie.
    I hope you can find solace in the knowledge that not only does Ken live on in his extensive body of work (books, articles, tv shows), but also in all of you- His wide ranging interests and concerns, his open mind, his self-confidence. He gave these to you. What a great legacy!
    Sending you lots of love, Vicky

  10. Susan Oxilia says:

    Dear Jane,

    I was so sorry to hear about your father’s death. Please accept my sincere condolences.

    As you are aware, I didn’t know him personally but Bill and Louise have great admiration for his achievements and speak very warmly about his energy and creativity.

    With love to you and yours,


  11. David Moore says:

    It’s with great sadness that I send my condolences to Julie and the family.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Ken today, and the off and on contact we had with each other over several years. My initial connection with him was through TVOntario, where we worked together on children’s television series, and a couple of adult ones. Later, both he and Julie encouraged me greatly when I began buying and selling antique photography. I still remember the two of them climbing the stairs to the gallery on a Sunday morning, and spending a couple of hours discussing old photographs with me and my partner. They bought from us, and always turned up for our shows.

    Although Ken was born in Cleveland, I’ve always thought of him as a New Yorker. He had that NYC wry sense of humour, and was quite capable of delivering a joke or a putdown with equal aplomb. As a producer on a couple of Ken’s series, I speak from experience on both counts.

    Certainly he could write for adults, but I think his children’s scripts were especially fine. He was able to get the pedagogy in there, and at the same time make you laugh and have fun. He knew how to delight children. Best of all, his scripts were produceable and saleable. Many of TVO’s biggest sellers had Ken Sobol’s name on them.

    I’ll always remember Ken for his intelligence, kindness and quick wit, no-nonsense approach to life and work, and love for his family. He was impressive.

  12. Noreen Young says:

    My sincere condolences to Julie, John, Cory and Jane and the family of Ken Sobol.

    Ken had a powerful and lasting impact on my life – both professionally and personally.
    He was my champion for which I will always be grateful.

    It was thanks to him, as a gifted writer, that I was involved as a puppet builder and puppeteer in the popular TVO children’s series, “Readalong” and “Telefrancais” and, subsequently, many other children’s programmes produced in their studios. Together, he and I honed the concept for “Under the Umbrella Tree”, a co-production of my company, Noreen Young Productions, and the CBC. This children’s series ran on the national CBC from 1987 to 1993, The Disney Channel and (in French) on Canal Famille. It was Ken who dreamed up the trio of puppet characters Gloria the Gopher, Jacob the Blue Jay and Iggy the Iguana and my great pleasure to design and build them. Gloria was mine to perform and she is still my all-time favourite puppet character because she truly “channels” the qualities in me that I like the best.

    Ken definitely had a unique personality and it took me a while to “catch on” to it. He could be gruff and outspoken and, at times, a bit scary, but it wasn’t long before I came to see his generosity, his intelligence, his talent, and his gift for lasting friendship. I always trusted him as a creative source and as a friend.

    He was a devoted family man whose powerful love of his wife Julie and their children John, Cory and Jane took precedence over all things in his life.

    He played a huge part in my life and he was my friend. For this I am grateful and I will miss him.

    Noreen Young

  13. Daood Aidroos says:

    The jackhammerer hacks, the brick layerer hones
    They build us our houses of wood and of stones
    Then they stand back, mostly with pride
    Leaving us hippy and happy inside
    Whither the writer when the job’s done?
    With me always, bummed or in fun
    Elated sophisms are skewered to rot
    In their stead, sometimes: disciplined thought
    You’re a big difference, in wonder or strife
    To my happiness, and meaning of life.

    Love to all, Daood (friend of the children’s from the Montreal years – unfortunately out of the country on Sunday)

  14. Bernadette Griffin-Donovan says:

    Dear Julie, Corry, John and Jane,
    So sorry to hear of Ken’s passing. We remember him so vividly from choir parties of the Donovan Chorale in Montreal. With Julie and Corry in the choir, he came to the parties and celebrated with us, as the natural thing to do. He also had the choir featured on the CBC television news program. We remember his love and support of his family and their projects, and his support of us in quiet and significant ways, most of all, his quiet but obvious integrity, made so visible in his children. We will remember him always . Bernadette and John Donovan

  15. Risa Shuman says:

    Dear Julie, John, Corry & Jane and families,
    I was shocked to read about Ken in today’s Globe & Mail and I am sending you my heartfelt condolences. I first met Ken in 1974 on “Magic Shadows” and he terrified me! However, I came to learn that he was actually quite harmless and so very smart and I’d like to think we became friends over the years. I have so many memories – of visiting you in Montreal, attending Corry’s wedding, having Ken just drop in to TVO for an impromptu lunch, working with him not only on Shadows, but on Saturday Night at the Movies also, talking movies, getting advice, hearing about the kids,
    etc. etc. I’m so sorry not to have seen you for the last couple of years as my life was also involved in caring for an ill partner. Sadly my Derek died in January, so I know something of how you must be feeling with this terrible loss in your lives. I know it sounds trite, but, do treasure and hang on to all your memories. They will comfort you in the dark times. I will see you next Sunday.
    with love and rememberance
    Risa xoxo

  16. Eileen Maxwell says:

    Hello Julie, So sorry to read about Ken in this mornings Globe and Mail , always remembered you as very nice neighbours (Birch Ave). John passed away 2000. Still living in the Summerhill area. Regards Eileen

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