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By Cameron Small
Hometown Weekly Intern
Towns of Dover and Sherborn, we gather to give a fond farewell to our fine, feathered, flippered friends. Sherborn is losing a pillar of its community. Things will definitely never be the same again. Smiles will be harder to come by during winter commutes. The Sherborn population of plastic fish, ceramic krill, or squid figurines could grow exponentially without these dapper guardians keeping them in check.
If you haven’t heard yet, the Penguins of Maple Street… are moving. *cue dramatic background music.* This tragedy is unavoidable. The penguin pillar of Sherborn is collapsing around us.
Well, maybe not entirely. Eric Russell, the architect behind the penguins’ structures, plans on donating one of the penguins to the Sherborn Historical Society. One of the penguins will also be gifted to one of daughter Julia’s teachers.
The other penguins will move with the family to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
For fourteen to fifteen years, the Penguins of Maple Street have been a fixture in the Sherborn community. Commuters and Sherbornites alike make sure to pass by the house to see what pose the penguins are in.
“The reason we’re so infamous is because we started doing this when Lily was three, in 2002, or 2001. We did it because—well, I’m from the Midwest, and we’re used to having decorations at Christmas. But we moved to Sherborn and everything is pretty straight, little white candles in your living room and the windows. We couldn’t put up lots of lights in the front, and we went to Newbury Comics and I saw these penguins and I thought, ‘Oh, that’ll be perfect.’ So we bought a bunch of penguins, half a dozen or more, probably eight or nine of them the first time, and then decorated them for Christmas,” explains Randel Richner, the originator behind the Penguins of Maple Street.
After that, it just took off. “It became fun. Eric’s an artist, and our family’s a little wacky,” Richner admits.
“A little?” interjects Lily, a recent D-S graduate and the inspiration for the graduation-themed pose who had been sitting quietly on the couch under a Red Sox blanket.
Over the years, the penguins have been in several poses. Richner’s favorite was when the penguins huddled around a television with a picture of Tom Brady pasted over it for the Patriots playing in the Super Bowl. Russell remembers the time he lined up the penguins so that when the school bus came by and opened the doors, it appeared as if the penguins were getting onto the bus. Lily remembers the Olympic ski-jump, a two-story ramp that Russell built off the side of the house.
What really started the infamy of the Maple Street Penguins was the first time the penguins were stolen about seven or eight years ago. The family made a sign that read “Stolen: Penguins” in addition to their phone number. Someone saw the sign, and called with the tip that a woman in a small blue car had stolen the penguins. So Eric flipped the sign over and wrote: “Would the young woman with short blonde hair in the small blue car please bring back our penguins?”
“And they were in bags on the side of the road, with an apology note, the next day. This was forty-eight hours, start to finish,” Russell finished the story.
Somewhere during those forty-eight hours, someone called CNN about it, launching the penguins onto the national stage.
Last year, someone else stole half of the penguins—the other half were at the Sherborn town hall. “We never got the penguins back, but people came from all over the place to give us penguins,” says Richner.
One particular instance of this involved a New Hampshire woman who drove three hours to bring two penguins to the family. The woman’s house had burned down, and the only thing that remained were two penguins, tucked behind a section of flooring. Russell explains that “she had to help us because others had helped her [when her house burned down], so she gave us her two penguins.”
Some of the donated penguins have names, written on the penguins’ feet. Russell refers to one of the penguins as “Ralph,” because he likes the name; but for the most part, the penguins don’t have set names.
It isn’t just recently that the penguins have been touching people emotionally. “Towards the end of the first year, we were getting notes from people,” Richner says. “There was one woman who left us a note. She said her mother was dying of cancer, and the only thing she [the mother] wanted to do every Sunday was go for a ride and see our penguins.”
These are just two instances of the penguins bringing smiles to other people’s faces, and part of why the Russell/Richner family continues to model the penguins.
Normally, the penguins come out two or three weeks before Christmas and go back into storage when the last snows of spring melt away. This year, because of the impending move, the penguins have stayed outside.
The penguins have made the Russell/Richner family famous. They have several anecdotes about going into town to vote, running errands at Petco for their dog or cats, or going vacation, and being identified as “the penguin people!”
The new house in Ann Arbor is not a busy commuter street—it’s more of a ten-house cul-de-sac. However, Richner’s brother and sister-in-law also live in Ann Arbor, living on a more frequented stretch. It’s hoped that they will display the penguins on the front lawn, as long as Russell and Richner continue to set the displays.
Even through their own familial chaos, the penguins have been a constant. Richner recalls a time when things were rough. She called home to check in during a business trip and spoke with Lily:
“‘Where’s daddy?’ ‘He’s outside.’ ‘What’s he doing?’ ‘Umm, he’s making an igloo for the penguins. With lights.’ And he spent hours and hours doing that while everything else around was crumbling. ‘Have the dogs been fed?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have the cats been—?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you eaten any dinner?’ ‘No.’ No. No. No. ‘Laundry done?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Well, is there a fire in the fireplace?’ ‘I hope not, because our house’ll burn down while he’s out taking care of the penguins.’”
All Russell had to say in his defense was “It was a good igloo, though.”
“I think he spends more time making penguin scenes then he does actually fixing our house,” Richner says of her husband. While this aspect might be aggravating, it certainly benefits the rest of the Sherborn community.
Toys from the Sherborn Transfer Station fuel the inspiration for the penguins’ poses. Electric Jeeps, toy cars, sandboxes, playground slides—they’re taken for a week, posed with penguins inside, and returned the following week for some other toy.
On June 28, the family plans to have a “Goodbye, Boston, Hello, Ann Arbor,” sign out with the penguins before they leave at the beginning of July.
To the Russell/Richner family—thank you for the years of smiles and laughs you’ve given the Sherborn community. The penguins, and you, will be sorely missed.