FARGO - Penny Andrist greets her guests at the kitchen door with a homemade cake and a huge smile.
"Come on. I know you want some. It's mostly butter and sugar and a little almond extract. What could be better? The only thing missing is the chocolate," she says with a laugh.
You'd guess that Andrist, her family and "pals" have done plenty of laughing in this kitchen. With its bright pumpkin orange and sunny yellow walls, it exudes warmth, exuberance and fun just like its owner.
Andrist has used that enthusiastic spirit to teach, nurture and entertain thousands of children for more than 20 years. For that reason and more, Penny Andrist is our Beautiful Woman for August.
Since the late 1980s, Andrist has delighted children in our region with her "Penny and Pal's" concerts, workshops and recordings. These days she's given up wearing her trademark overalls ("They just get too hot."), but she's kept the bevy of quirky characters she helped created: Bernie the Bear, Allie Alligator and Rockin Robot, just to name a few. Penny never envisioned this would be her life.
She describes herself as "shy" growing up with five brothers and sisters in the small northwestern North Dakota town of Crosby. She was musical along with the rest of her family. But as a kid, she chose to pursue sports, in part, she says because she wanted to find her own niche, and she wasn't thrilled with being compared to her accomplished and musically talented sisters. (Older sister Pamela Burns is now the artistic director of the Lake Agassiz Girls Choir in Fargo).
Eventually, she graduated from Minot State University and got a job as a learning specialist for Williston Public schools. She and teaching partner Gail Benson were finding it hard to reach some of their students with learning disabilities when Benson suggested they use Andrist's guitar in class.
"Music just taps into a different part of your brain. There's science behind why it works. So we decided to try it," says Andrist.
They soon found the music got through to the children like nothing else. Andrist began to write songs, and after about six years, in 1990, she and Benson decided to take a "leap of faith," leave the classroom and move to Fargo to start recording songs and pursue a career in children's entertainment.
They named their new business, "Kids Kollectibles," which she says in hindsight was not a good idea.
"We used to get calls all the time from people asking if we sold cribs or furniture," Andrist says.
A name change was needed, and because Andrist was front and center and Benson was more behind the scenes, it made sense to name the group after her. "Penny and Pals" was born.
Andrist says in the beginning it was hard to book their gigs, "The Fargo Park District was great in helping us get our start. We started with park events, and that lead to festivals and bigger shows."
Children in the community began to respond to Andrist's mix of songs and silliness. She started with the simple ABC's using characters to teach her audience about letters and reading. In addition to Allie, Bernie and Rockin' Robot, Penny brought children the "Copycat Rap," "Pig Parade" and "Uncle Underwood's Unbelievably Ugly Underwear."
She says she's loves singing all the old classics, but longs to sing her newer material, too.
"I'm sure it's the same thing Springsteen goes through," she says with a laugh.
But over the years, not only have Andrist's songs changed, their purpose has: from simple literacy to self-esteem and character building.
"In addition to the more traditional things we were doing, we decided to take on the platform of becoming a 'very good me.' I'd ask the kids, 'What does that mean to you?' More than anything, I want to communicate to them that 'You are amazing just the way you are, you have a special place in this world, you should be good to people, and take care of yourself.' And that's all that really matters."
Jacky Arness, a sophomore at Bethel University in St. Paul, guesses she was about 4 years old when she first heard Penny and Pals. She ended up getting the chance to sing with Penny on her "Wiggle, Giggle and Sing" CD, and she appeared in one of Penny's videos. It was one of the first performances for Arness, who went on to appear in many local productions, including starring roles at Trollwood Performing Arts mainstage musicals.
"Penny and Pals is what made me fall in love with performing," Arness says. "It taught me at a young age to be comfortable with who I was, and to be unafraid to show what I was capable of to others. Penny was the key ingredient in making that happen. Her enthusiasm and genuine interest in each child made you feel valued and capable."
Andrist says she just loves seeing kids from those early years all grown up and sometimes bringing their own small children to a Penny and Pals show.
"It makes me feel so good really. They obviously had a positive experience with me, and they want to share it with their children. It's great!"
And while she's 20 years older now, she says she doesn't have trouble keeping up with this generation of fans.
"I think I can still outlast them," she says with a laugh. "It's really a reciprocal thing. We feed off each other's energy."
She says grown-ups can make her cranky and anxious. Not so with kids.
"I never had kids of my own, but I just love them. I'm completely comfortable with children. I'm as happy as I can be. I don't find anything as intoxicating as watching children be joyful," Andrist says.
And the adoration seems to be mutual. Benson, who nominated Andrist, says she thinks children see Penny as a favorite friend or playmate, "Kids and their grown-ups feel the warmth and real connection that Penny has with children, and her passion for helping them grow," says Benson.
Still Andrist has had times where she questioned her life's choices. She recalls the long trip to perform in the small town of Circle, Mont.
"When we got there, they didn't have anything we needed. No sound system. Nothing. I was kind of crabby - thinking what am I doing here?"
They managed to put on the show anyway. It was a small crowd, but Andrist noticed a young girl in the front row. She was obviously disabled in some way. She just sat there unresponsive as Penny performed. But then after the show, the girl came up on stage and starting talking and singing into the microphone.
"Her teacher came up to me and said, 'We've never heard her talk before. This is the first time she's uttered a word.' I went from thinking I need to get a job to realizing I have one."
That job means doing about a 100 shows a year throughout the Midwest and beyond, and trying to market her seven CDs, and one DVD. She also works in children's ministry at her church. She doesn't know what the future holds or how long she'll do this. But for now, she's living in the moment.
"Right now I feel good. I feel like this is exactly where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to being doing. When I'm doing these shows, I really feel like God is saying, 'Here's why I created you.'"
More than anything she says she wants to feel like she made a difference.
"I want people to think that I had a positive impact on their life, that I'm full of joy, that I'm funny and charming, and of course, extremely good-looking." More laughter.
All joking aside, she dismisses herself as a Beautiful Woman.
"I don't feel beautiful at all. What is remarkable is that I figured out exactly what I wanted to do and I had the courage to do it."
And children all over the Midwest are better because of it.
Congratulations to the other nominees for August: Dawn Peters and Roxane Romanick.
On the air
Penny Andrist will be on The Christopher Gabriel Program on 970 WDAY today at 11:35 a.m.
For more information about the Beautiful Women project or to nominate your own beautiful woman, go to beautifulwomenof.areavoices.com.
Tracy Briggs is the digital content development director for Forum Communications.