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Forum: Fred Rogers / The greatness of good

Tim Reeves recalls the man he knew first on TV, but then as a lifelong mentor

Sunday, March 02, 2003

I have been privileged in my life to meet many great people. As a journalist and as a government official, I have talked with three presidents, dozens of governors and scores of celebrities and CEOs. And I had the privilege to work for seven years with Tom Ridge -- an extraordinary politician and an even better man.

  Tim Reeves is a former Post-Gazette reporter and press secretary to Gov. Tom Ridge. He now is a partner in Neiman Group, a Harrisburg advertising and public relations agency (treeves@neimangroup.com). 

But I have known only one person who ranks as one of the truly great people in American history.

That man is Fred Rogers.

I was blessed to know Fred Rogers virtually all my life. Like most people, I first "met" Fred on TV, as a child watching the Neighborhood. Later, my father, Bruce Reeves, became Fred's interim pastor at Sixth Presbyterian in Squirrel Hill. Our families worshipped together. And when my father died young in 1981, my mother and brother and I mourned with Mr. Rogers and his wife, Joanne.

After that loss, I was a rather angry young man, and Fred showed me a special nurturing. He invited me to swim early morning laps with him at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, a discipline he treasured. When I was figuring out what to do with my life, Fred asked a prominent Pittsburgh CEO to sit down with me and talk about career options in business. I had zero interest in business at the time, perhaps even disdain, and I'm sure the CEO thought the visit a monumental waste of time. Yet he sat with me -- for Fred.

Fred and I stayed in touch through the years. Gov. Ridge and Michele Ridge had an ambitious children's agenda, and Fred was there to help any time we would call. We began to talk as communication professionals. And, when I had to make the wrenching decision whether or not to follow Gov. Ridge to Washington after 9/11, we talked as friends. Fred's quiet, nonjudgmental counsel helped me to see the proper path for myself and my family.

Over those years, I came to understand that Mr. Rogers truly was one of the great leaders of American history. Like such great leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., he discovered a simple message of fundamental truth and relevance for his age -- and a vision to convey it. Fred's message was unconditional love. And his vision was how a powerful new medium -- television -- could be harnessed to convey it.

And, unlike virtually any high-profile public leader, before him or since -- it was a message that was utterly unblemished by his own human failings. I cannot think of another person of the highest public profile who was so completely untouched by his own mistakes of conduct or character.

I always suspected that Fred Rogers was the only public figure on Earth with a chance to win a 100 percent approval rating in a public-opinion poll. If anybody could, it was Fred. His message to the masses was meaningful, but not divisive. Even more rare, people sensed that he did not seek popularity. Fred Rogers was the antithesis of the popularity-seeker. And, like so many things in life -- in shunning it, he acquired it -- with an intensity and depth that those who crave popularity can only imagine.

There was no experience quite like walking down the street with Fred Rogers. The wide-eyed recognition. Fred's unfailing graciousness. The subtle reversion to childhood in adults as they talked with him. And, most of all, his amazing ability to instantly connect with people -- child and adult alike -- at a gut, emotional level.

I'll never forget the story of Fred testifying before a congressional committee in the 1960s, requesting money for children's public television programming. The chairman of the committee was a rough, gruff congressman who looked like he had seen it all, and was unimpressed by most of what he had seen. Fred sat before him, looking, well, like Fred.

He quietly explained his passion. How children need to be loved. To feel secure. How we all need to show them they are special, in their own unique way.

Departing from his scripted testimony, Fred asked if he could read the chairman the words to a song he wrote for the children who watch his show. And there, sitting in one of the most adult settings you could imagine, Fred, without a trace of self-consciousness, recited the lyrics to his children's song. "What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite?" he asked the crusty congressman.

When Fred was done, the congressman sat there. He paused. He composed himself. And he mustered one sentence:

"You've got your money."

This was the remarkable power of Fred Rogers. He could penetrate the human soul.

Television can be a softly corrupting medium. It inspires those participants to don facades of appearance, character and voice -- in other words, to act. The acting can be overt and specific. Or it can be subtle. But acting permeates TV at every turn.

Not Fred. This can be said with certainty: Never in the history of television has a person who was on TV more, acted less.

From the WQED studios in Oakland -- far in miles, and even further in culture, from New York City and Los Angeles -- Fred Rogers melded his extraordinary personality with his message and his medium. And, in doing so, he constructed one of the most powerful, positive societal forces of the past half century.

"It's you I like," Fred would sing to us, and we knew it was true. No one could project unconditional love more genuinely. And TV was the perfect medium for Fred to do it. In his appearance, his attire, his voice, even his enunciation -- Fred was able to convey, through TV, his unique and genuine love and caring for every single human being. Through TV, he could touch mass audiences in a way no other human being ever has. And our society is profoundly better for it.

When speaking at public events, Fred frequently would ask the men and women in the audience to pause and remember an adult who showed them caring and kindness as a child. "Shut your eyes," he would say. "Remember that person. And thank them for what they did for you."

Everyone would do it. And when the eyes would reopen, most would not be dry. Fred could achieve intimacy when people least expected it.

Tonight, when I close my eyes, I will reflect as Fred asked us to, remembering someone who touched my soul.

I'm thinking of you, Mr. Rogers.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

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