Captain Noah sails over the rainbow

Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky and Captain Noah share a kiss in March 2016.

CAPTAIN NOAH said his days were numbered, back in March when I sat down with him for an interview.

"At my age, you know you're closer to death than when you were 49," said the captain, a.k.a. W. Carter Merbreier, star of Captain Noah and His Magical Ark, the iconic kids' show that ran on WPVI-TV from 1967 to 1994.

"And please don't say, 'Oh, but even a 49-year-old could get hit by a truck!' as though the odds of dying soon are equal for everyone. At 89, my odds are greater."

So, in preparation for the obituaries he knew reporters would one day write about his life, he had sent to the Daily News a paperback version of his 2014 Kindle book, Captain Noah and His Magical Ark: Remembrances and Ruminations About the Animals and the Guests - Celebrities, Sports and Music Stars - Who Prowled Our Decks.

It was a magazine-size, name-dropping paperback whose 74 pages documented Merbreier's favorite memories of his 27-year children's-television career.

There were photos of the mega-celebrities who visited Merbreier's "magical ark" - among them John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Charles Barkley and Peter Falk - but many more of Merbreier and his calm, wry wife, Pat, a.k.a. "Mrs. Noah."

And anecdotes galore divulged the behind-the-scenes production high jinks of the show that was eventually syndicated to 22 stations across the country.

For a very long time, America loved him. At one point, local viewership of Captain Noah and His Magical Ark was greater than those of Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street combined.

At the time of his eventual death, Merbreier told me modestly that day, obituary writers "might want to write about my passing."

Well, Merbreier died at his Audubon. Montgomery County, home on Tuesday after a brief illness, announced his former employer, 6ABC. He had just celebrated his 90th birthday.

And so here I am - a child now of a certain age - writing about his passing. I'm filled with wistfulness and gratitude.

Wistful that the last icon of my youth is no longer here. As long as Merbreier breathed, so, too, did a big chunk of my own childhood. What a lovely connection that was; how sad that it's gone.

But I'm also grateful that I got to meet Merbreier and thank him, adult to adult, for sweetening my childhood every time he asked his young viewers to join him and Mrs. Noah in warbling "Sing a Rainbow."

The tune was a celebration of diversity before diversity was a buzzword and became the sound track to many a childhood, including mine and those of my eight siblings.

Merbreier's show was low-tech, like we kids were ourselves. We didn't need much more than a few cheap Ark props and our own powerful imaginations to envision life on the high seas. Or to believe that Maurice the Mouse and Wally the Walrus - puppets manned by Mrs. Noah - truly were alive and deeply interested in who we were and what we thought about.

During my visit with Merbreier, I kept touching his arm - was he actually real? Was I really here? - and grinning at Ed Hille, the staff photographer who made the visit with me. Merbreier hadn't been on TV in years, and I felt like I was seeing a ghost - a dignified, twinkling ghost of a family member I'd really loved - and I felt so happy.

Merbreier repeated himself often during our visit, the way my own mother did shortly before her death five years ago, the way I surely will when, if I'm lucky, I live as long and well as they did.

I didn't care. It just felt wonderful to be there with him in his beautiful two-bedroom apartment at Shannondell, a sprawling, upscale retirement community near Valley Forge, where he was surrounded by framed photos of his time on the Ark and uncountable Ark-theme mementos.

I asked if he was lonely. Pat, the love of his life, had died in 2011, and their only child, a daughter, lived in England with her children and grandchildren. Merbreier spoke warmly of his progeny but was at tremendous peace with where he was and how he lived.

"I love the Philadelphia area," he said. "The people have been very good to me, all of my memories are here. I have had a wonderful life. This is my home."

It was wonderful to hear that voice again, to marvel at the passage of time, to be vividly in the moment and think, "All these years later, he's still here, and so am I." I appreciated in a new way his commitment, so long ago, to helping children feel loved and appreciated and his request that we all "be good to one another."

Because isn't that why we're all here? What higher purpose are we called to, anyway?

So, dear old Captain Noah, bon voyage as you sail into the hereafter and into the waiting arms of your beloved Pat.

And on behalf of thousands of former children who knew and loved you well, thank you.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie