Antarctica on Newport
Penguin tableaux on the northwest side
by Margaret A. Leary
From the January, 2019 issue
Ten penguins are wintering at 941 Newport Rd. The life-sized replicas came to Ann Arbor about three years ago from Sherborn, MA, where they lived with Randel Richner and Eric Russell.
When Richner and Russell moved to Ann Arbor, they bought a house on a short, dead-end street. By now accustomed to attention, the penguins demanded a more prominent location. The home of Richner's brother, Cedric, was perfect. Near the Miller-Newport intersection, it's passed daily by children and parents heading to and from Wines Elementary and Forsythe Middle School. Each year, Cedric Richner says, "the penguins arrive from Antarctica between Halloween and Thanksgiving and leave when spring weather becomes uncomfortably warm." This year, they chose to be shipped in a box and spent several days unpacking themselves. Soon after, they donned Halloween costumes. In November, they sat in easy chairs in front of a TV and watched the Thanksgiving Day parade before suffering through the dreadful Michigan-Ohio State football game. In December, they brought out Christmas ornaments, set up a ladder, and decorated a huge oak tree.
Richner praises the penguins' ability "to give comfort to people with problems or facing challenges." He says he's often told "the penguins 'made my day,' or 'cheered me up.'
"I started the penguins for myself," he says, "and now it's important to keep it up. One woman told me she daily took photos to her hospitalized husband." He has a file of notes that people have left for the penguins or their keepers. One wrote: "Penguin people: may the spirit of the season bring peace and penguins to us all." And: "Dear Penguins: You make me happy, you make me smile; you make me forget the craziness of the world for awhile. Thank you." The penguins' Instagram account, @thenewportpenguins, has 114 followers.
Richner takes no credit for the penguins' power to generate comfort and joy. He says he occasionally drops hints to the birds ("Looks like Michigan's going to the NCAA tournament") but says the response is completely up to the birds, who decide whether and how to mark the event. "I'm just the conductor," he says. "The birds do the work."
[Originally published in January, 2019.]
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