the Mister Rogers Connection
My friend Mister Rogers
The writing assignment was intriguing, but I never anticipated it would result in a decade-long friendship with one of America’s best-loved TV personalities.
As a columnist for Christian Parenting Today magazine, I had been asked by editor David Kopp to write a cover story on Mister Rogers. Even in 1994, celebrities were protected by a ring of handlers. The task could have been impossible. Fortunately, I connected almost immediately with a key person: David Newell, whose real-life sunny disposition matched his onscreen persona as Mr. McFeeley on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I caught a flight to Pittsburgh. The PBS station WQED was located downtown. Fred Rogers and I met in his office, just down the hall from the studio where the popular children’s program was taped. Furnished almost like a small den, the office felt comfortable and homelike. This was definitely not a corporate cubicle!
“There’s a small clock from the mother of a special needs child, personally meaningful artwork on the walls, and two pairs of sneakers tucked under the chairs,” I recalled later.
The magazine article was to offer parents a godly approach to building self-esteem in young children. According to the cassette tape recording I made that day, Fred said, “Self-esteem doesn’t come from people giving a lot of compliments for things kids don’t and shouldn’t be complimented for. Self-esteem comes from realizing you have worth.”
“I like you just the way you are” was more than the last line on a broadcast script. That implicit message of acceptance and respect for each individual was at the heart of Fred’s message. And yet, he offered even more.
Fred modeled how to be immersed in the moment. Perhaps that why he made me feel so special. I believe his willingness to give the gift of time was one of the qualities that appealed to his youngest television viewers. Even before the beginning of the digital age, parents were telling children to “hurry up” and “get going.” Fred didn’t do that — on TV or in real life.
I appreciated his pace, especially during that initial visit as I scribbled notes across a large yellow legal pad. During that interview and our subsequent meetings, he never attempted to fill pauses. He didn’t rush through answers. He never looked for ways to cut short a conversation. This busy celebrity gave the gift of time.
Fred was also visionary. He identified what matters in life. Today, we are belatedly beginning to shift from valuing the material to recognizing more fulfilling core values. Even the title Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood reflected the desire for community and all that such connectedness includes.
Fred was inclusive before the importance and value of diversity became universally accepted, and he exuded a level of caring that could only be defined as radical kindness. In a recent interview about the movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, actor Tom Hanks repeated one of Fred’s best-known quotes: “Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.” That was Fred Rogers.
I know that’s true. My red wooden trolley is signed “with gratitude and affection” in addition to a personal message, and on personally autographed sheets of music, Fred added St. Paul’s traditional words of greeting, “peace” and “grace,” in Greek script.
During the years I traveled to Pittsburgh, our son, Matt, a teenager at the time, would teasingly announce the arrival of mail from Fred. Letters were easy to spot, as envelopes were postmarked with a red trolley and the ever-present theme “won’t you be my neighbor?” Notes, letters, and even the P.S. afterthoughts on the backs of envelopes were all written in Fred’s distinctive calligraphy.
In correspondence, he often inquired about our children, mentioning Christy, who was then studying at the University of Evansville. He commented on Angie wearing her Neighborhood shirt to teach Vacation Bible School. Fred even cautioned me to “find some quiet peace in your busy days.” When he wrote on Oct. 11, 1997, “Please give all your family our love and know that we think of you often,” I was reminded that he prayed for our family members by name.
In recent interviews, I’ve told people Fred was the most Christ-like person I’ve ever met. What he did, what he said, and who he was all flowed from his core as a Christian. In a note dated Nov. 24, 1995, he shared about the recent death of a high school friend. “His life meant so much to me … his death did too. Even though his body was full of cancer, his soul was full of faith.” That was long before Fred’s own death of cancer in 2003. His relationships—with people and with God—had depth.
As an ordained Presbyterian minister, he was committed to his calling to reach children and their families through mass media. In a 1994 interview, he told me, “Even though in the Neighborhood we never mention the word ‘God,’ God is ever-present. I believe that what’s essential is invisible to the eye.”
After getting to know Fred, I wished the television audience could see a character trait that wasn’t always visible on screen. Fred Rogers was a profound thinker. In fact, he wrote all the songs used on the Neighborhood. In Goodnight God, he wrote, “Thank you God, for letting us love you.” Until reading that line, I had honestly never considered loving God to be a privilege. Other lyrics read: “Love is fragile as your tears. Love is stronger than your fears.”
When the biopic of Fred released in 2018, I didn’t watch it. I didn’t want anything to spoil my cherished memories of Fred. I finally saw that film and even served as a consultant for Sony’s recent release It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I was pleased — actually, relieved — that director Marielle Heller was respectful of Fred and his legacy.
Last November, when I was in Pittsburgh for the red carpet premiere, a flood of emotions washed over me as I stood in front of the original television set, now on display in the Heinz History Museum. Years earlier, I had watched Fred, the perfectionist, go through that very door again and again as he taped and retaped a scene that looked perfect to me the first time!
In one sense, it’s amazing that a story about one of the many journalists who interviewed Fred could pack theaters. The film has triggered an outpouring of positive coverage. Yet we search for authentic heroes. We hunger for decency. We crave goodness. Fred symbolized the good we seek, for he truly was the kind, caring man who appeared on the screen. Fred was Mister Rogers.
And for me he was a friend whose spirit still lives, because the core virtues for which he stood have no expiration date. Fred believed each person, from the “mighty to the very small,” as he wrote in his Creation Duet, could have a positive impact. In a note dated Feb. 22, 1995, Fred wrote, “Isn’t it wonderful how we can all be used in different ways?”
He would encourage us, as he said when giving commencement speeches, to take a moment to think about the people who “have loved you into being.” As he told me years ago, “The greatest thing we can do is let somebody know they are loved and lovable.”
And of course, Fred would encourage us to be kind. Be kind. Be kind.
I experienced that radical kindness in my friend Fred Rogers.
All text © Copyright 2019 by Dr. Mary Manz Simon.