Yes, I am writing a letter of thanks to the late host of a children’s television show. I don’t know how normal or otherwise it is to consider someone like Fred Rogers a hero. But he is one of mine. I had written letters to him in my childhood, and received personal replies that were always encouraging and gracious. I know some of you had the same experience with him.
The reason for this post is because I have learned a lot more about Mister Rogers in recent weeks. I am reading one of his biographies, and now see how stunted my knowledge of him was.
Fred was not only an inspiration to millions of children; he treated them like individuals, and affirmed that all of their emotions were valid, even in a time and culture where most of us are expected to “suck it up and deal with it.” He was a picture of real integrity. Though he was human and flawed, he was upfront if you asked him about his mistakes. By his actions alone, he discredited the cynic who maintains that “everyone has something ugly to hide,” who shouts from the rooftops that “everyone is out for themselves.” He may have been one in a million, but he still sets an example that the rest of us can follow, if we have the grace and humility to do so. Rogers found a real passion for counseling children and helping them realize that they had value, and did not need to see life as frustrating or miserable. He knew that there was no place for cynicism, for shrugging your shoulders and “accepting” that life is generally horrible. He peered deeper than that, and saw unfathomable beauty and room for growth in the simplest of things.
I will always be grateful for Fred Rogers, since he was (and still is) such a blessing to me. I may have been a tempestuous little monster as a boy, but even I could be calmed and take the time to listen to his relaxing voice as he taught us about everything from dinosaurs to electric cars, and from the legitimacy of angry feelings to the beauty of a joyful friendship. He knew that kids needed to be creative, to express their thoughts and deal with their emotions, and he always had constructive methods and words to impart to us. Whether he seems “manly” in a superficial sense is beside the point. Under the songs and puppets, behind the sneakers and cardigan sweaters, was a real man. I know this, because he left the world better than he found it. I pray that when it is my time to go, I can follow his example in my own way.
Fred, if you ever read this letter, I know it will find you doing well, for you have gone off to a much better place. I spent most of my early years in your Neighborhood, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. You showed me the value of manners and mutual respect, your integrity still inspires me, and you taught me that it is okay to pretend. I can never thank you enough.