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THE NEIGHBORHOOD ARCHIVE - All Things Mister Rogers

Mister Rogers and Me

PUBLICATION: Guideposts
AUTHOR: Tim Madigan
DATE: August 2007


   
(Click images above for larger view)

I had a small study at home, where I liked to read and write and pray. It was a wood-paneled den, lined with my favorite books and, on the walls, some journalism awards -- I'm a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The room was my retreat. But, one summer afternoon 11 years ago, I sat in it, feeling anything but peaceful. I was at my desk, starting at a computer screen, trying to write a letter. Writing is my job, and I write something just about every day. But I did not know what to put in that letter. Maybe it was the subject. I was trying to explain why my life felt like it was falling apart. I was in a profound depression -- loathing myself, actually, which I had done off and on since I was a child, craving acceptance always out of reach. My wife, Catherine, had about given up trying to talk me out of this feeling, and we barely spoke, except with the kids. I doubted our marriage would last the year. Who would want to be married to the likes of me?

Actually, though, the real reason that letter was so hard to write was its very first line: "Dear Fred." Fred was Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the children's television show beloved by millions. I had met Fred while writing a profile of him for the newspaper. We had struck up a correspondence and, I thought, the beginnings of a friendship. I was flattered such a man would write to me. But that June day, I wasn't sending Fred a polite note. I was reaching out to him because, even though he lived over a thousand miles away and I had met him exactly once, I sensed there was something truly special about him, and, given the sorry state of my life, I had nothing to lose.

"Dear Fred," I finally typed, and followed with a detailed account of my anguish. Near the end I asked the question that, as always, consumed me: "Will you be proud of me?" I knew it was a weird letter for a man in his late thirties to send a children's television star. But before I could change my mind, I printed it, stuffed it into an envelope and put it in the mail.

When I met Fred Rogers one crisp November day in 1995, the last thing I expected was that, months later, I would be pouring my heart out to him. Reporters are not known for their sentimentality, and I hadn't even watched his show much as a kid. My main image of him was that moment at the beginning of each show when he enters his living room, puts on a cardigan and tells the kids how special they are in that inimitably earnest voice of his. Imagine my surprise, upon arriving at the WQED television studios in Pittsburgh, to discover that Fred's voice and manner were unchanged from the show. He wore glasses and appeared older and frailer than on screen, but he addressed me as if I, too, were as special to him as the children he worked for. Is this guy for real? I wondered.

He took me to his office, which was small and plainly furnished, and directed me to a sofa beneath a window with a view of trees. I noticed atop a filing cabinet, just before we entered his office, all but forgotten, several Emmy awards gathering dust. Much more prominent were sheets of paper covering the walls in his office -- drawings from children around the country and a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book The Little Prince: "What is essential is invisible to the eyes." I asked some standard questions about the show -- how he communicates with children, how he tackles difficult subjects -- and then steered the interview into more personal territory. Unlike other famous people I've met, Fred answered every question openly and straightforwardly, and I may even have mentioned something about my own faith to him. He told me in great detail how he had been consumed by grief recently over the death of one of his best friends. As he talked, looking through the window behind me, I felt a mounting excitement at getting such good material. But then Fred turned back to me, smiled and said, "You're ministering to me, Tim. By listening, you minister to me." I was stunned. I barely knew what to say. And soon I wrapped up the interview.

My last evening in Pittsburgh, as I settled into my hotel room, the phone rang. "Tim, this is Fred Rogers. If you don't have other plans, I was wondering whether you'd like to join my family and me for church tomorrow." I stammered out a yes and, the next morning, met Fred, his wife, Joanne, and his two grandsons at an old stone Presbyterian church in a leafy Pittsburgh neighborhood. Fred squired me around the sanctuary, visibly delighted as he introduced me to friends, his pastor, members of the choir. "This is Mr. Tim Madigan, come from Texas to write a story about the Neighborhood," he said. "He and I have been having a wonderful time together." During the service, I watched him become exasperated with his grandsons, pulling them out from under pews and telling them to sit still. He's a real person, I thought. And he seems, for some reason, genuinely interested in me.

At the end of the service, he and one of his grandsons walked me through a light rain to my car. I opened the door. "I'm really glad to be your friend, Tim," Mr. Rogers said. I mumbled something in reply and watched him head back to church. After he'd gone a few yards, he turned and made a sign-language gesture from one of the show tapings I had seen -- interlocking fingers, meaning friendship. He smiled, and then he and his grandson continued down the block.

We corresponded after that week -- mostly me sending Fred stories I had written, including the one about him, and Fred replying graciously, sometimes offering spiritual observations about the people I profiled. By the time I wrote my anguished letter, I had no real reason to assume he'd welcome that kind of confession. It was clear he was a good man. But maybe he'll be put off by my presumption, I worried. A sinking feeling came over me. Writing him, I was more vulnerable than ever. God, I prayed, I can't take another rejection.

Fred's reply came in days. An envelope arrived with Family Communications as the return address, the name of Fred's production company. I ripped it open. There was Fred's distinctive script, precise and looping. "Dear Tim, The answer to your question is 'YES,' a resounding YES. I will be proud of you. I am proud of you. I have been proud of you since first we met....Only God can arrange such mutually trusting relationships -- for sure! FOR SURE!! YES, Tim. YES. Love, Fred." Before I had even finished, I was crying -- unashamedly. I sat down, barely able to think. And then, already, I was meditating a reply.

I corresponded with Fred until his death in 2003. His letters were gentle, kind and wise. He wrote, often, that he was praying for me. Just knowing that helped lift me out of my depression -- which, in turn, helped heal my marriage. At the time I got Fred's IPOY (I'm Proud of You) letter, as Catherine and I came to call it, I took it as an affirmation of my worth as a person. Now, though, having known Fred better, I think what truly made him proud of me was not my abilities or awards, but my willingness to open up, to be vulnerable, spiritually and emotionally. That's what Fred valued -- honesty and true, open closeness. "What is essential is invisible to the eyes." Fred saw me that way, the way God sees. And he taught me that only by looking that way myself could I find what I sought.

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