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Saturday Diary: What is the light that Fred Rogers had, shining all around him?

Saturday, May 03, 2003

By John O'Brien

This little Tanzanian physician was fuming. Who is this Fred Rogers guy and how'd he get on TV? Nobody's neighborhood is like that. He's not preparing kids for the real world, which is a rough place, and you have to be tough to survive and prosper. Mr. Rogers shouldn't be teaching kids that the whole neighborhood is a nice place full of nice people who care about you and take care of you. That's not what the world is like.

   John O'Brien is a Post-Gazette copy editor (jobrien@post-gazette.com). 

Yeah, I got an earful. And I thought it was interesting, particularly coming from an intelligent, educated, accomplished person from the other side of the world. It had to be nearly 20 years ago that she spoke, as we discussed my kids and her kids, all of whom are now in college or beyond.

She just didn't get Mr. Rogers and couldn't hack him. At the time I didn't think much of Fred Rogers -- only that maybe he was kind of wimpy, nerdy or goofy, if good-hearted and well-intentioned. My children, now both 21, did tell me recently that they liked and never missed Mr. Rogers and his show when they were tots.

But now I see Fred Rogers in a whole different light than before. And with apologies to my Tanzanian buddy, maybe it is just fine to show kids how the world can be and not just prepare them for how the world is -- it can be a world full of neighbors who value each other and look out for each other.

And if I'm just a tiny bit ticked off at Mr. Rogers, it's only because he reminded me of how good I can be but am not, sort of like the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta reminded me of the same thing, as she devoted herself and her sisters to caring for the poorest of the world's poor. But maybe that's good for me, and provides motivation to be better, though I know Fred would be the last one to get in my face and tell me my foibles.

And light is what Fred Rogers was about. His consistent kindness made him almost luminous, and he was light-hearted, with his constant good humor, his neighborhood of make-believe, his smiles, his songs, his continual compliments and encouragement, loving the world all at once but one kid at a time.

Fred Rogers' life and work will be celebrated today at a ceremony at Heinz Hall and on WQED-TV for much of the day. His death in late February prompted many people's memories of encounters with him. And it reminded me of the time I was a reporter in the early '80s and phoned him for a comment about some story -- I have long since forgotten what the piece was about.

Mr. Rogers couldn't have been nicer to me, a guy he had never met. His persona seemed the same on the phone as on the TV. We took care of our business, then he asked me about my children, and I gushed about my boy and my girl, still toddlers. Then Mr. Rogers said, "I'm sure you're a wonderful father." Then he insisted on sending to my home "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" T-shirts for the kids and even included a book for the adults.

And perhaps that was the thing about him. His focus was completely on whoever was in front of him at the moment. Though I was a working reporter just trying to get a quote from a source, he was just showing concern, kindness and generosity to me, which -- judging from the many testimonials following his death, from the rich, powerful and famous, as well as the common men, women and children -- is what he showed everyone.

As I watched TV the night he died, I looked for something in the video clips that he said or that others said about him that might be the crystallization, the most quintessential expression of what he was.

Fred Rogers said that all we ever really have is this moment and that the important thing is to share yourself because the best thing we can give others is our true selves. And he was simple, not attuned to fame or fortune, really. He seemed truly in awe of the reaction by kids to his straightforward message that each one is important, unique even, and that he cares for each of them. And he spoke with amazement about one little girl who was being abused at home but found great solace in curling up alone in front of the TV and watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" because Mr. Rogers kept telling her she was special and he liked her just the way she was.

As an ordained minister, it seems, he really thought his job was to be part of the drama of loving and serving, with God writing the script and the outcome. And if God is love, the transcendent light we saw in Fred was that irresistible piece of God in Mr. Rogers that he shared with all of us.

His faith and hope seemed to tell him and us that the outcome will take care of itself if we love and serve one another. So, perhaps after all, he was transcendent. His calm, steady, low-key, ability to share himself with kids of all ages transcended all the pain and heartache out there.

Although, it should be said, Fred was not a wimp and was feisty enough to speak against the disrespect, incivility and violence he saw way too much of on TV; and he was an advocate of teaching children self-discipline and self-control -- of understanding their feelings but knowing that they didn't have to act out everything they felt.

I'd like to know a little more about how he was able to maintain that transcendence and focus, how he was motivated to stay on message and on his mission to take care of the people around him and make each one feel important -- adults and children. And while Fred undoubtedly had days on which he didn't feel like being cheery, I can't imagine Mr. Rogers waking up on a bad day and snapping, "Make my coffee now, and while you're at it, shut up!" His outlook helped make all of them beautiful days in his neighborhood.

I suspect much had to do with his prayer life and his upbringing. He spoke of how his grandfather made him feel extremely special and important when he was a boy.

He liked to be called Mr. Rogers because it subtly helped teach kids intergenerational respect. But I'm happy to call him Mr. Rogers because of the respect he earned from many of us, though he might prefer to be called just "neighbor." But let's forget the mister and think higher, like royalty, maybe, and call him, oh, King Friday the Thirteenth.

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