Thousands of kids grew up with the 'Story Lady'

Agnes Royer, left, sits wearing her memorable, pink houndstooth coat with Tammie Williams at a class reunion in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of Tammie Willams

For three generations of Ketchikan children, all activity came to a complete stop at 9:05 a.m. each Saturday. For more than 50 years, that was when "Fun for Kids" aired on radio station KTKN and "the Story Lady" — as Agnes Royer was universally known — held court for the next 55 minutes: Reading stories, talking to the children, and celebrating their birthdays on the air.

Oddly enough, her first audience, her oldest daughter Shelley, was not impressed to hear her mother reading a story on the air, but over the next half century thousands of Ketchikan children grew up with the voice of the Story Lady firmly in their ears and then their memories.

Agnes Royer, Ketchikan's Story Lady, died at the Ketchikan Pioneer Home on Sunday, she was 97.

She was born Agnes King in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Ulysses Simpson Grant King and Agnes King in 1921.

From an early age she loved and collected dolls. They were such a part of her life that her "back East" family rarely called her by her name. She was always just called "Doll," her daughter Rosemary Nelson recently noted.

How Agnes King got to Ketchikan in 1948 is literally shrouded in a "mystery."

Her family says that she was corresponding with a well-known Ketchikan man as a "pen pal" and she and the man decided she should move to Ketchikan with the idea of eventually getting married. Her parents were not happy. But Agnes took a train across the country, caught a steamship for Alaska and arrived in Ketchikan.

Unfortunately, she realized that she and the man — the family calls him the "mystery man" — would not be a good match. Her family wanted her to return to Pennsylvania, but she decided to remain in Ketchikan, working as a book keeper for Ketchikan Spruce Mill.

She met Howard Royer, who had been raised in Ketchikan. He was a carpenter for McGillvray Brothers and later became a local union official.

They were married on Jan. 1, 1952 and they had four children, Shelley, Tim, Julie and Rosemary.

In 1958, she agreed to fill in on a weekly children's story program on KTKN-AM, Ketchikan's primary radio station.

"When the eldest of the four children, Shelley, had her tonsils out, Agnes wanted to do something special and unique for her bedridden daughter," according to a 2000 proclamation honoring her from the Alaska State Legislature. "She read her a story on the radio. Her daughter, Shelley, was not impressed, but Agnes was hooked. She read intermittently on the radio until 1960, when she was officially crowned 'the Story Lady.' She has been reading weekly ever since. When she is going to be out of town, she tapes the 'Fun for Kids' in advance."

For the children who were specifically named on their birthdays it was "like a mini party for that particular child," the 2000 state resolution noted.

Soon, it became almost required for Ketchikan children of a certain age to tune for Royer's program, which always started after a short, five-minute news break at the top of the 9 a.m. hour each Saturday. It wasn't unusual for children to jump the gun in their excitement, turning on the radio early, and then asking their parents where "the story lady" was.

Royer had the perfect voice for her mission. It was soft and fluffy like cotton candy, but it could also take on a bit of an edge when the story required it. Unlike many radio personalities, her "real life" voice was the same as her "radio" voice. which often led to a shock of recognition when Royer was out in public. Her face was not as well known as her voice.

Former resident Rodger Hackstock remembers meeting with Howard Royer one day at the union hall. He didn't know that Howard Royer was connected to such a famous person. During the meeting, Agnes popped in to talk to Howard about something. As she spoke, Hackstock's face began beaming.

"Oh my God," he blurted out. "You're the Story Lady!!"

It was a familiar reaction that happened over and over again, Royer once noted many years ago. It was almost always — as in the case of Hackstock — from an adult who had listened to the program decades before.

Later in life, Royer also because known for something besides her voice. For many, many years, she wore a pink houndstooth coat that literally lept out from the sea of less-colorful outerwear that populated Ketchikan. In later years, it was not unusual for an adult — who had no doubt listened the show as a child —  to arrive at a Halloween costume party wearing a colorful houndstooth coat and be greeted with "Story Lady" cheers.

Of course, Royer maintained a life outside of the "Story Lady." For many years she was a first-call baker of wedding cakes. More than a few young Ketchikan women of the 1960s and 1970s bragged to their friends that the "Story Lady made my cake."

Royer was also the organist at the Ketchikan Presbyterian Church, for even longer than she was the Story Lady. She had begun playing the church organ for services soon after she arrived in Ketchikan and kept it up until 2014, more than 60 years.

Royer finally stepped down as the Story Lady in 2011. It is believed that she had the longest radio reign of any woman ever in the State of Alaska and only a handful of men outdid her tenure.

In addition to being celebrated by the Alaska Legislature, Royer was also honored with proclamations from two different borough mayors, Dave Kiffer and David Landis, in 2010 and 2018. There was even a brief "draft the Story Lady for 4th of July Parade Grand Marshall in 2018" effort. Which began, appropriately enough on a Facebook page called "The Story Lady — Ketchikan," which has been filled with reminiscences  this past week.

"She made me believe in magic," Eric Johansen posted on Facebook.

"What a legacy she left," Sue Hennessey posted. "A beautiful full life."

"I don't think I can read aloud to children without thinking of her," posted author Esme Codell. "She will always be the paragon."

"When (she) was on the radio was the only time I dared defy my mom," Alice Weisgram posted. " I declared that I could not do housework while she talked. I had to concentrate. She gave so much joy to so many people!."

And she had fans wherever the KTKN signal reached, according to Diane Coleman Bunch, who lived in logging camps in the 1960s.

"We had no TV and every Saturday morning we would huddle around the radio waiting for our story," Bunch posted on Facebook earlier this week. "Her voice! We loved listening to her and the books she read. I'm sure there were hundreds of kid that waited all week for our Saturday morning visit from the Story Lady."

Howard Royer died in 2011, During his final illness, Agnes refused to leave his side long enough to do the radio show live.

"She was reading her stories (for the show) at home," Rosemary Nelson said. "Then we'd take a thumb drive down to the radio station with that week's show on it and they'd incorporate it (into the radio show format.)"

In 2015, Royer moved in the Ketchikan Pioneer Home, where she lived for the last three years of her life. She made one last radio appearance, reciting a poem on KRBD-FM in 2016. Her voice was a little rugged and halting, but any former Ketchikan youth who heard teared up in recognition.

Although her hearing and eyesight were pretty much gone, she was still getting around town with the help of family members. She even made an appearance at the recent Winter Arts Faire.

Wearing her famous pink coat.