Ella Jenkins, dubbed “the First Lady of Children’s Music,” earned her nickname Sunday, chatting and taking pictures with children who attended her 99th birthday party.

“You hear about birthdays. They’re 50 or 70, but 99, oh wow,” Jenkins said. “So many people, young people (celebrating). It’s a good feeling.”

Dozens of Jenkins’ friends, neighbors and fans attended the celebration, hosted at the Ella Jenkins Park in Old Town. A trio of organizations — Old Town Triangle Association, Lincoln Central Association and Church of the Three Crosses — organized the party, complete with balloons, cake and music. People who know Jenkins lauded her not only as a talented musician but a “kind, likable person.”

Jenkins is a renowned children’s folk performer, known for songs such as “You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song” and “Miss Mary Mack.” She helped popularize the call-and-response technique, which encourages children to sing together and develop musical skills. She won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 and has appeared on shows such as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street.”

Jenkins was Aquanetta White-Olive’s workshop music teacher at a day camp in 1969. White-Olive said everyone loved Jenkins’ singing and personality, especially because in the 1960s it was rare to meet a Black woman who was a folk singer.

White-Olive, 65, remembered when rumors quickly spread that Jenkins was going to record an album during the workshop.

“The best and the most exciting day was when she walked in, and I’ll never forget it. She said ‘We’re going to record an album, and all of you are going to be on it,’” White-Olive said.

Not long after, Jenkins released the album “Seasons for Singing.” The album featured a dozen songs, complete with ukulele, drums and harmonica, that she recorded at the summer program. One of the songs on the album is “Go, Aquanetta, Go,” named after White-Olive.

“In the studio this day, it was freezing cold. And we just want to be done,” she said. “We had sung every song Ella had taught us. They needed one more song for the album so I said let’s sing ‘Go, Aquanetta, Go,’ and that’s why the song is on the album.”

White-Olive carried a photograph taken at the camp in her backpack. White-Olive said she lost contact with her former teacher until a professor writing a biography about Jenkins reached out to her recently. White-Olive said she was shocked that Jenkins was still alive, and it’s a blessing to be able to celebrate her 99th birthday.

Afternoon Briefing


Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.

Jenkins was born in St. Louis in 1924 but moved with her family to the South Side of Chicago, where she learned to play the harmonica with her uncle. She also frequently heard gospel music and tambourines from the loud speakers of churches across the street, which influenced her music.

Jenkins eventually moved to Lincoln Park where she performed her famous songs for children outside the Church of the Three Crosses, which she attended. The park across from the church was named in her honor. For about a decade, she’s lived at an assisted-living facility in Uptown.

Frank Alan Schneider, 57, said he grew up listening to Jenkins’ concerts. He said it was a surreal experience meeting his “musical idol and singing with her” when he started going to the Church of the Three Crosses. Alongside other church members, Schneider sang on her 1999 album “Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends Pulling Together.”

“You cannot not love Ella,” Schneider said. “She’s just so sweet and loving and a beautiful person.”

Schneider’s dad, Frank L. Schneider, said he visits Jenkins periodically in the assisted-living facility, where she’s “always cheerful.” He remembers helping Jenkins carry her supplies once in Grant Park and she joked that he was now her “roadie.”

Preparations are already underway for Jenkins’ 100th birthday celebration.