Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, driven by immigrant ethnicity, topography, and historic clustering of workers around their places of work. Centered around coal mines, inland river ports, and manufacturing plants that provided the steel, aluminum, and glass to the nation, hundreds of towns, enclaves and settlements make up the Steel City. Yet it is Pittsburgh’s fictional Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that children and grownups most recognize around the world.
America was first introduced to that now-famous locale in 1968 with the national debut of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, though Fred Rogers and his puppets had been appearing in different shows (particularly in Pennsylvania) since the 1950s. In addition to being the 50th anniversary of the eponymous show, this year also marks 90 years since Fred’s birth, and our shared hometown has been awash with reflections, stories and celebrations devoted to one of its most famous and beloved sons. But fifty years later and over a decade since his death, Mister Rogers belongs as much to the world as to Pittsburgh. It is bittersweet to read the reflections and see the accolades (and Forever Stamps) being bestowed on the man so many years after his earthly gifts to us. An impatient God takes the best of us before we are prepared to let go.
I met Fred Rogers in the early 1980s when we both frequented a local health club for pre-dawn swimming. I had always been somewhat wary of the seemingly over-sentimental attitude of his television persona, and, being a bit of a skeptic, I was unsure just how much of this could be genuine. But with Fred Rogers, what you saw was what you got. As I became more comfortable around the legend, spending several mornings a week with him and experiencing his palpable concern for and heartfelt interest in those around him, I was converted. When Fred was talking to you, it was all about you — your day ahead, your aspirations, but mostly your children. I never encountered anyone who radiated such a selfless concern about the children of even a casual acquaintance — kids he had never met but after whom he constantly asked.
I can recall only a single instance when Fred showed up at the pool with a furrowed brow. Burger King had just run a commercial that featured a Mister Rogers lookalike, and he was very upset that it would lead children and their parents to believe he was using his image and reputation to sell a product. He told me had assiduously avoided such commercial sponsorship because he believed it would erode child and parent trust in him. After consultation with colleagues the day before, he planned to call a senior Burger King executive that afternoon. When I saw him a day or two later, his smile had returned and he said simply, “The commercial will no longer be running.”
Once during our brief association, I was in Washington, D.C., on business and dropped into the US Airways Club at National (now Reagan) Airport while awaiting my return flight to Pittsburgh. Fred Rogers sat alone in a corner, the people nearby keeping a respectful distance but casting many sideways glances and furtive smiles. He seemed grateful to see me and modestly explained he had been at the Smithsonian to donate one of his iconic sweaters — knitted by his mother — to the national collection. But the day had been so hectic, he said, he had not had a chance to eat. Snacks were a luxury that 1980s airline clubs did not provide, so he was on the hunt. He appeared anxious for company in the search, perhaps being tired and not wanting to face the terminal’s late-afternoon crowd alone. We exited the club, Fred holding my arm in the finest engaged-companion style, and I soon received a memorable glimpse of his effect on people.
I was a mere accessory to the star, but I became suddenly and uncomfortably aware of hundreds of eyes turning towards us. It was the first time I remember understanding the challenges posed to celebrities in the public eye, and I quickly realized that I was, perhaps by design, a momentary shield for Fred. As we walked the corridor and people smiled, waved, and pointed, he kept his full attention on me: the purpose of my trip, whether I had gotten any lunch, and, of course, how his sons and my sons were doing.
Until a little girl approached him to say hello. She walked up slowly and shyly, a mother several feet behind her nodding her on. When the child caught his attention, for Mister Rogers I effectively disappeared. She was all that mattered to the children’s hero of the day. I had watched my young children become transfixed by his television image, and now it was my turn. Fred’s warmth, words, and attention to this youngster immediately relaxed her and elicited a smile and a conversation as if she was speaking with a longtime friend. For those few minutes, it was all about this little girl: her trip, her parents, her feelings. She scurried back, beaming, to her mother, and Mister Rogers was back on my arm, resuming our search for crackers. It was quite an experience to see the real thing in action rather than filtered through the television screen.
Fred and I continued swimming together at the health club until my dedication and attendance faded, but it is this encounter in the airport that best recalls for me the true nature of this talented, dedicated, and gentle soul whose legacy we celebrate this year. He was a true gift to children and adults everywhere, and I hope the woman that girl grew up to be fondly remembers her brief but touching encounter with Fred McFeely Rogers.
David Cannon, a 1973 graduate of Notre Dame and the father of three sons raised on Mr. Rogers, recently retired after a forty-year career in environmental law and environmental affairs management.