Everybody’s Neighbor

On April 19, 2002, just as I was finishing my M.Ed. and internship in Secondary Education at Penn State, Fred Rogers visited campus to give a lecture. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of National Public Television, a field my father also worked in for many years before and during his career in Distance Education at Penn State. Mister Rogers was the keynote speaker, his speech the capstone to a week of various events held to celebrate the milestone.

2002 was a challenging year for me – I think that all periods of transition, uncertainty, and change are inherently stressful, no matter who we are or what our circumstances happen to be – and on this particular evening I’d already taught all day, I had papers to grade, and I’d just started working on my final project for grad school, even as I was wrapping up my internship and beginning to think (or, more accurately, worry) about where I should apply for a permanent teaching position.

So I almost gave the lecture a pass, although the tickets were sitting right there on my desk. But due to some persistent encouragement, at the last possible moment I agreed to go. Of course I loved Mister Rogers, and of course he’d been one of the great heroes of my childhood…I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who grew up in the United States in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, or 00s who wouldn’t cite him as a childhood hero. But I went, not begrudgingly, but certainly without the automatic enthusiasm one might expect.

The auditorium was packed by the time I got there, and I ended up standing in the back. It was wonderfully full of people from all walks of life: PSU students, professors, and administrators…but also others, of every age and background, who had driven in from all over the eastern seaboard to see him.

And then Mister Rogers stepped up to the podium, and proceeded to give one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard in person. This isn’t hyperbole on my part, or a rose-tinted memory. I’ve re-watched the speech since, and it still resonates with immense power.

What I realized during the hour or so that he spoke is what everyone who met him or saw him in person quickly realized too: the Mister Rogers on the show is the real thing, and off the show he spoke just as empathetically, sincerely, earnestly, and meaningfully to anyone, from anywhere, and of any age, because none of it was an act…not a single bit of it. The added (and essential) beauty of this is that Mister Rogers never spoke down to children – he never spoke down to anyone. What he did do was kindly, clearly, and thoughtfully speak his mind, impart his wisdom, and defend the importance of care, love, and empathy, as well as the avenues for conveying it…in this case, public television, which served as the bedrock upon which his career flourished.

Because of this, as he spoke I saw caustic administrators, know-it-all college students (myself included), and jaded professors all let their guard down. How often, especially in public, does that happen? And all at once, too? It was extraordinary. This was a truly good man who, just as he refused to condescend, somehow calmly, kindly destroyed any condescending attitude that might be leveled at him, just by being himself. Within minutes, the auditorium was a great sea of attentive faces reflecting honest emotion…the shields were lowered, the masks removed. Everyone was suddenly vulnerable – vulnerable, but safe.

The most moving element of Mister Rogers’ speech was something he often did, and which has now become famous, in large part due to two recent productions: the excellent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, released in June of last year, and the major motion picture, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, currently in theaters.

He asked us all for one minute of complete silence, which he personally timed, during which he requested that we think about all the people – living and “in Heaven” – who helped us to become the best versions of ourselves…people who “…loved us into being.” The silence was complete, the time graced with the weight of deep personal reflection. And at the end of the minute, Mister Rogers said, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.”

How typical, during an event largely honoring him, for Fred Rogers to honor others instead. It was deeply moving…something everyone present could take part in and share together, through the silence of individual remembrance and appreciation.

To the best of my knowledge, this was the second-to-last major speech Fred Rogers ever gave…the last was at Dartmouth College, his alma mater, a short time later. In February 2003, just ten months after he spoke at Penn State, he passed away after a brief battle with stomach cancer.

I look back on that special day in 2002 with deep gratitude…Gratitude primarily for Mister Rogers himself, but also for the fact that someone made the effort to repeatedly encourage me to attend, and was so convincing that I actually got off my butt and went. I feel that what we don’t do often haunts us more than what we do. It was largely due to this close call with Fred Rogers’ lecture back in 2002 – my God, what if I’d missed it! – that I began to consciously recognize the importance of taking advantage of opportunities both big and small. I’d already started trending in that direction, but this particular event allowed me to articulate to myself how important it is to actually do things you want, rather than just talk about doing them. That way, later on, you won’t find yourself saying, “I wish I’d gone,” but, instead, “I’m so glad I went.”

Three months later, I was offered a full-time high school teaching position in Pittsburgh – Mister Rogers’ adopted home town, coincidentally — accepted it, and moved there. In the almost 18 years since, I’ve done my best, over and over, to take advantage of every good opportunity that comes my way and see it through, whether it’s attending a concert or lecture, going out with friends, cultivating love, spending time with loved ones, completing a new writing project, exploring a new hobby, teaching a new course, creating a new lesson, visiting a new place, or meeting new people.

With very few exceptions, I have never regretted pursuing any of those opportunities, even the ones that didn’t work out…and the few regrets I do have are easily overshadowed by the overwhelmingly positive and fulfilling experiences that have filled my life. Mister Rogers helped me realize the importance of living by that philosophy…just by being himself.

*

Earlier I mentioned the new film about one man’s friendship with Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. As I write this, it is still in theaters. It’s a beautiful film, based on a true story, and heartfelt and meaningful without becoming trite or sappy. In the last 18 months, the film, the award-winning documentary I mentioned earlier, and a new biography by Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor, have all been released to fine critical praise and warm public reception – further testament that the legacy of Fred Rogers is still as healthy and far-reaching as ever…and at a time when our society is certainly in great need of kind hearts and wise advice.

On a (very) incidental note, I had the pleasure of being an extra in the film, in a scene with Tom Hanks. The production spent the month of October 2018 filming here in Pittsburgh, and a few months earlier, on a whim, I “auditioned” (I use the term loosely, since it was basically waiting in line for hours with two thousand other people, getting my photo taken, and filling out  a couple of forms). After seeing the huge line, I almost turned around and left – but, due in large part to the lesson I learned back in 2002, ended up staying and seeing it through.

As the days of October passed by, I heard nothing from the studio…It seemed as though a fun and unique opportunity wasn’t going to pan out, and sometimes that’s just how things go…No problem, at least I tried. But then, at the very end of the month, two days before filming wrapped, I was called in.

I ended up being cast as a WQED crew member, and appear in the scene when “Mister Rogers” is filming a segment for his show with a string quartet. I like it because there were very few of us in the scene – just Tom Hanks, the string quartet, and maybe eight of us extras. We went through makeup, wardrobe, the whole works, and were on call for about seven hours. When it came time to film the segment of the scene in which I participated, they only needed four takes, but the whole thing from beginning to end was fascinating, and also a great deal of fun.

Even more incidentally, I did make the final cut. Twice, they show wide shots of Tom Hanks/Mister Rogers watching the quartet play and asking them questions, and you can see me in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. It’s more or less the back of my head, I might as well be a cardboard cutout, and if you blink you’ll miss me, but who cares? There I am, on screen with Tom Hanks for five or ten seconds. That’s a great little bonus, but the chance to see an excellent actor like him work, in person, is what makes the experience significant for me. He’s been one of my favorite actors ever since Big came out when I was a kid, and I can happily attest that not only is he a consummate professional, but also a very nice guy. (I know, because he caught me using his dressing room bathroom – I had no idea it was his, I swear – and was totally cool about it.) Between takes he’d joke with all of us, sit quietly off by himself texting, or compliment the musicians, and every single time he did a take, he nailed it.

So what a special opportunity, to see Tom Hanks portraying Fred Rogers in person. Somehow, a lesson I took away thanks to Fred Rogers’ speech in 2002 led me to another unique association with his life over 15 years later. I never could have anticipated that, but at the same time, I’m not really surprised. Sometimes elements in life, both great and small, come full circle…and all you have to do to allow that to happen is make the effort and show up.

Anyway, I hope you’ll go see the film, and enjoy what is, among other things, a fine tribute to a man who loved others more fully, more wholesomely, and more selflessly than just about anyone who has lived in modern times. It was his great purpose to make a positive impact on as many lives as possible…and he continues, through the legacy he created, to achieve that purpose to this very day.

What an extraordinary gift he had.

What an extraordinary gift he still gives.

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My parents at a reception with Fred Rogers shortly before his speech, April 19, 2002

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Me with David Newell (Mr. McFeely), shortly before Fred Rogers’ speech on April 19, 2002. I’m holding a photo he signed for me back when I was five, along with another one he signed for me that day, 19 years later. Just this past August, 17 years after this photo was taken, I met him again when he gave the opening day speech at the high school where I teach.

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4 Responses to Everybody’s Neighbor

  1. veronica dyreng says:

    This was a wonderful read!

  2. nikgrant2017 says:

    Wow! As usual, a bit of shared life that makes me think about my own. I love that you learned to “show up” from your diffidence at attending. Your grateful appreciation makes me promise myself to say yes more often! Thanks for honoring Fred. L

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