This blog post is dedicated to the loving memory and inspiring legacy of Mr. Fred Rogers. I also dedicate this to mothers and fathers everywhere who heroically defeat the evil nightmares of their children.
Vivid, haunting nightmares were uninvited guests to my childhood slumber. All of the seemingly light clichés associated with nightmares plagued me during my pre-school and kindergarten years. I literally tossed and turned in addition to waking up screaming. Of course, I was blessed to have my Mom and Dad nearby willing to chase monsters away or to say a little prayer with me to soothe my frayed nerves.
During one particular series of horrid nightmares, I was unwilling to go back to sleep. My mother had attempted every tried and true trick with me and nothing was provoking any kind of sense of well-being me. With her the quick and sound thinking of her intuition, Mom placed on the “Pinocchio” Record Player that I shared with my older brother a Mr. Rogers record. The record was called a “A Place of Our Own.” It was a compilation of songs from his PBS series which I devotedly watched everyday. I was his neighbor and he treated me with kindness, respect and love.
Mr. Rogers and I had many adventures together to the “Neighborhood of Make Believe.” I learned how crayons were manufactured through the magic of the pre-You Tube resource that was “Picture Picture.” I developed an appreciation for Jazz due to the melodic stylings of the John Costa Trio providing a hip soundtrack for our television adventures. All were invited in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. You could be of any color, race, religion, gender, background and there would be no judgement. The Neighborhood was a vision of the way the world needed to be: “A Place of Our Own” where we echoed the better angels of human nature for all.
The record of Mr. Rogers’ soothing voice and songs of affirmation, unity and love did the trick for me as a child. The nightmares soon dissipated and I was able to sleep peacefully. Mom saved my world again and would continue to do so.
The lessons of Mr. Rogers stayed with me throughout my youth and I carried them into my adult and professional life. Early on as I grew into a young adult, Mr. Rogers and his Neighborhood Trolley stood as symbols for nostalgia for me. They were old toys that I had placed in the attic of my memory and I would gaze at fondly from time to time. It wasn’t until later that a deeper significance reached me in a more profound way.
Fast forward to my time as young High School English Teacher in the throes of a being a newlywed. I have found the love of my life, Deb, and we are young teachers bent on teaching all the children of the world. (We still are, by the way.) My wife and I suffered a miscarriage during her first pregnancy. I am helpless and grieving. My wife is suffering and I am desperate to take the pain away from her. Later that night, I had a dream I was walking through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe with Mr. Rogers and he is comforting me. In the distance, I noticed my father. He beckons toward me and picks me up in his arms. The world makes sense again and I am at peace. My wife wakes me up to tell me that Dad is on the phone to check on us. He is there to let me know that the world is not going to end and that all would be right. The divine timing of his phone call and that dream has never left me.
A few years later, I am driving home from school exhausted and dejected. For whatever reason the day was rough and I was questioning the universe and my choice of employment. Deb and I are now the proud parents of a newborn daughter. I stagger home to pick up a copy of the newspaper. I noticed that Mr. Rogers is retiring from his broadcast. The article goes into detail how Mr. Rogers wanted to take time to relax and focus on other projects. I also noticed that Mr. Rogers was a devoted letter writer and wanted to explore correspondence via e-mail. The article detailed that best way to reach out to him via e-mail.
I remember tossing the newspaper aside and stepping over to our home computer. My fingers formed words on the keyboard to a man whom I never met but his presence had been with me for most of my life. I wanted to thank Mr. Rogers for his selfless career of accepting others and promoting the power of imagination.
That didn’t happen. I remember crying as I wrote because I simply thanked him for helping me get rid of my nightmares. I shared with him how I was now a father, husband and teacher. I thank him for inspiring me to be the best in all of three of those important roles. Most importantly, I thanked Mr. Rogers for being a profound influence in my life and how I hoped to do his legacy justice. I shared with him how Deb and I would tell our baby daughter, “You are special.” This line is one of the cornerstones of Mr. Rogers’ message of love and understanding. I remember signing it, “Your friend, Sean.”
Within hours, I got a reply back from Mr. Fred Rogers. It was my hero and inspiration taking the time to read my thoughts and respond in a sincere, loving way. As he thanked me for me my kind words, Mr. Rogers shared his appreciation of the strengths I had as a person. Most importantly, he told me that my daughter was lucky to have a father like me. Here was man whom I never met me giving the honor of a deep compliment.
The email is something I still cherish today and I occasionally re-read it when I need a little inspired reminder of my purpose.
This upcoming year marks many commemorations for Mr. Rogers due to the 50th Anniversary of the airing his beloved television show. We have a United States Postal Stamp, an upcoming documentary and even a biopic starring Tom Hanks all carefully etched with dignity and love for the audience.
The legacy of Mr. Rogers continues to live on in repeated viewings of his Neighborhood and acclaimed spinoffs like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” Future generations will carry on the basic human values of love, respect, unity and kindness that colored Mr. Rogers’ vision for a better world.
I remember when I first learned of Mr. Rogers’ passing a few years after I received that e-mail from him. I was teaching at Bedford High School in Massachusetts and hurriedly preparing for class in the library. I accidentally bumped into a colleague who was listlessly wandering around the stacks. Noticing the sadness in his face, I asked him what was the matter. His words are eternally carved in the soundtrack of my wife, “Mr. Rogers died today, Sean. We lost the greatest educator of the 20th Century and we haven’t done a doggone thing.”
I paused in stunned silence. What I would like to say is that I rushed back to class and took time for a moving tribute for my students. I was truly at loss for any kind of action and I simply carried on with the day.
Mr. Rogers’ legacy of kindness still resonates within me every day. I aim to connect and relate in a sincere way with others as he did. I stumble and often miss that trolley ride to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Through it all, I am honored to carry on in his heroic footsteps as an educator and servant.
I think of the song, “Many Ways to Say I Love You” which is on Side 2 of “A Place of Our Own.” A song I used to sing to my three daughters when they were babies. A song I used to fall asleep to when I was a boy terrified that the world was going to end:
There are many ways to say I love you.
Just by being there when things are sad and scary.
Just by being there, being there, being there to say I love you.
You’ll find many ways to say I love you.
You’ll find many ways to say I love you.
You’ll find many ways to understand what love is.
When I hear these lyrics, I realize that I was loved the whole time during those childhood nightmare episodes. Now, as I am older, I realize what both my parents and Mr. Rogers were teaching me the whole time: The message is Love and we have to both give and receive it. When we do that the world will always be a better place.
The world is truly beautiful place because we all get to share our special gifts with each other.
Thank you, Mom.
Thank you, Dad.
Thank you, Mr. Rogers.