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A legacy of sincerity

Teresa Heinz remembers a friend and universal role model

Friday, February 28, 2003

By Teresa Heinz

On the day my late husband, John, died 12 years ago, Fred Rogers immediately sat down and wrote notes to my sons and me. In mine, he praised the honesty that John and I had enjoyed with each other.

Fred Rogers filmed an episode "Old Friends, New Friends," which ran from 1979 to 1981, at the Heinz family farm outside Pittsburgh. From left are, Rogers, Teresa Heinz, Christopher (Rogers' godson), Andre, Sen. Heinz and John. (Walt Seng, Family Communications Inc.)

It was a gentle reminder not to shut down, not to let grief rob me of the emotional openness and sharing that are essential to overcoming pain and loss. That was so typical of Fred, who was godfather to John's and my youngest son, Christopher. Even in the midst of his own sadness, he reached out and affirmed the importance of caring for each other.

Fred had a unique gift for dignifying the feelings of others. Early in our friendship, he would talk to John and me about an idea he had for a television show for children. He put together two observations that very few people did in those days. One was that, in times of uncertainty and chaos, children need reassurance that they are safe and valued. The second was that television could be a powerful educational tool.

Coupling those two ideas made Fred a pioneer and one of the most powerful friends that children have ever had. But the true genius of his work lay in the simplicity and sincerity of his message: that it's OK to be you, that we like you just the way you are.

For Fred, the Neighborhood was more than just a setting where he could bring together interesting characters. It was a metaphor for our connectedness. "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was about relationships and about the love and respect we need to bring to those relationships, whether they be with each other or with ourselves.

In our jaded society, that message has been the object of derision many times over the years. But Fred, whose concern for children ran to the core of his being, never wavered; his quiet voice was steady across all the decades of his life. In his faith, principles and fundamental decency, he was one of the strongest men I have ever known.

He was also humble. Even late in life he had the capacity to be surprised whenever he heard from someone whose life he had touched. Just a few years ago, he received a letter from a woman who had been ready to end her life but who had changed her mind after happening upon an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Fred had made her feel valued again.

He used to get letters like that all the time, and when he did, he would share them with wonder and joy. It was never about him, but about the message for which he believed his life was merely a vessel.

That message was not directed only at children. Fred will be eulogized and remembered for his work on behalf of children, as well he should be. But in materials and videos produced by his production company, Family Communications, which now carries on his work, and in his writings, speeches and interviews, Fred reached out to adults, too.

In his firm but gentle way, he reminded us that we are dependent upon one another. Helping children grow into caring adults, he would suggest, begins with being caring adults ourselves.

In a speech he gave two years ago to the jurors of the Heinz Awards, Fred said, "Taking care of our neighbor and our planet that we call home must be our primary consideration if we are to continue to live." That message is so important as we cope with difficult and anxious times in this global neighborhood of ours. It is a precious gift for us to hold onto and, now that he is gone, make our own.

In a tribute to my late husband, Fred wrote: "As he enters Heaven, he's sure to hear, 'As you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.' But we on Earth will surely miss him."

I can't think of a finer epitaph for Fred himself. He touched so many of us with his message of dignity and hope. Pennsylvania has lost a favorite son, and our hearts go out to his family. Fred will be sorely missed, but we are so much richer for his having lived.

Teresa Heinz is chairman of the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Heinz Family Philanthropies.

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