The apotheosis of Fred Rogers, which began last year with a well-received documentary and biography and continues now with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as the beloved children’s television host, is a welcome antidote to the prevailing cynicism, meanness and despair.
At a time when so many prominent men have been toppled and exposed as frauds, perverts and predators, Rogers, who died in 2003, offers hope and a reassuring contrast, the closest thing we have to a secular saint.
But as his widow, Joanne, has repeatedly insisted, he was not a saint. He was also an ordained Presbyterian minister but very human, and to canonize him is to place him on a pedestal that could discourage us more peccable folks from trying to emulate him.
Nevertheless, no one can deny that he was exceptionally good, kind and sincere, and remained that way despite his growing renown. Celebrities are peculiar. They strive to be famous, but once they achieve fame they strive to distance themselves from the public. They want to be known and unknown at the same time.
Rogers was different. His genius, both on and off TV, was intimacy. When he asked to be your neighbor, he meant it. He wanted to get to know you, to become close to you.
I met Rogers in the summer of 2001 when he came to Philadelphia to discuss book projects with a publisher. I took advantage of the visit to talk to him for a story.
When I entered the room, I complimented him on his bow tie.
“Would you like to have it?” he asked.
I was taken aback by his sudden generosity. “I’d love to,” I stammered. “But I couldn’t.”
Rogers was stoop-shouldered and fragile-looking. His face was open and honest, his eyes clear and direct. Even though he was on a tight schedule, he acted as if he had all the time in the world, and as if I were the most important person in it.
The cynical part of me wondered whether he was for real, whether he was as virtuous as he seemed. I plowed right in: “You’ve said many times that none of us is perfect. What are your flaws and shortcomings?”
“The sages of the ages all tell us that if you want to be happy, don’t set out to be rich or famous, set out to be helpful,” Fred Rogers told me. “And I truly believe that.”
His brow furrowed, and he looked distracted. I imagined he was disquieted by my bluntness. He pondered for a long while.
“I’m trying to be a better appreciator,” he finally said. “I’m just convinced that God wants us to find whatever we can that is of value in the person we happen to be with at the moment.”
He proceeded to take control of the interview, turning it into a conversation, and then a friendly interrogation. He asked whether I had “grown up with the Neighborhood.” I told him that I was a senior in high school when the show began, that I was 51.
“Get out!” Rogers said. “My goodness, what a young-looking 51-year-old. You’ve obviously taken care of yourself.”
“Thanks for the compliment. It means a lot, especially at this stage in my life.”
A look of concern fell over Rogers’ face.
“How do you mean that?” he asked, his voice grave.
I told him that I was in the throes of what Wordsworth called “the years that bring the philosophic mind,” that I was striving to make my life worthwhile, that I was interested in people who are searching for meaning, who are engaged in the construction of a soul.
“Wonderful! Then you must read these books.”
He scooted from his chair and grabbed his briefcase. He handed me a copy of Bo Lozoff’s book It’s a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice as well as a book by Rachel Naomi Remen titled My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging.
“These are my gifts to you.” There ensued a rich conversation about the purpose of life and the possibility of being uniquely useful.
That evening, at a banquet in Center City, Rogers was honored by the Education Commission of the States for the lessons he had taught children.
“Let’s take a minute of silence to think about the people who have helped us and encouraged us, who have loved us and wanted the best for us,” he began after he was introduced.
Some bowed their heads. An impatient man in a business suit stopped jiggling his leg. In some eyes, tears began welling.
“Imagine how proud those people must be,” Rogers resumed, “that you thought of them during this special time.”
The audience stood and applauded. Partly they were saluting his longevity and the admirable notion of steady excellence. But I sensed something more profound happening, that they were also saluting a gentleman — a truly gentle man — and the embodied possibility of human goodness.
“People long to be in touch with honesty,” Rogers surmised when I asked him about it later. “I wonder if they’re not thanking us for just being ourselves.”
After the banquet, Rogers was surrounded by well-wishers, and I waited to congratulate him. As soon as he saw me, he broke away. This man I had met only a few hours before gave me a warm hug.
The next day, a Saturday, the telephone rang in the early afternoon. It was Mister Rogers, calling me at home.
“I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed our talk yesterday and what a privilege it was to meet you. I thought a lot about some of the questions you asked me, and I realized there was something I forgot to ask you.
“This may sound sort of funny, but I was wondering: Who are the people in your life that you love and who are the people who have loved you?”
A few days after he called me at home, I phoned him in Pittsburgh and we chatted for nearly two hours. I was especially interested in what drove him, what gave meaning and purpose to his life.
Rogers recalled the slogan on display at Rollins College, his alma mater: “Life is for service.”
“The sages of the ages all tell us that if you want to be happy, don’t set out to be rich or famous, set out to be helpful,” he said. “And I truly believe that.”
During the next few months, we exchanged several letters. We talked about our families, our hopes and joys, fears and sorrows, and the world after 9/11, an event that had shaken him to the core and made him uncharacteristically pessimistic and despondent. Throughout, Rogers gave a master class in the fundamental acts of love: listening and paying attention.
It bears repeating: He was a prodigious, patient listener, an outstanding anomaly in this age when so many seem uninterested in hearing what others have to say. He instinctively understood and respected the value of conversational silence in eliciting difficult and private thoughts and feelings. I was deeply flattered and honored that someone with so many demands on his time deemed me worthy of a portion of it.
At his insistence, I sent him copies of some of my favorite stories, including a magazine piece I wrote about the last days of my beloved grandfather.
“Well, Artie, you made me cry,” Rogers replied in a handwritten note. “I just finished reading your beautiful piece about your G.P. and when you told about shouting your loving prayer across Frenchman Bay and the whole way beyond, I cried. What a fabulous tribute to your grandfather by his ‘main man.’
“Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I feel I know you better than ever. You’ve shared so much of your self — your mighty special self. Like your G.P. it seems you’re always growing ‘wise about what really matters.’
“It has been a special joy to begin to get to know you. I pray that my grandsons will grow to be like you.
It is a note I will always cherish, proof that Mister Rogers was indeed my neighbor.
Art Carey, a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer, is the author of “In Defense of Marriage” and “The United States of Incompetence.”