I am a Pittsburgher. One of its favorite sons has been celebrated in a new movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The simple but profound message of the life, work, and character of Fred Rogers centered me like a protracted mindfulness meditation.
I met Fred Rogers one afternoon in the early 1990’s. I went into at a corner market a few blocks from station WQED, in Pittsburgh. I was waiting in line to pay for coffee, and immediately recognized him. I called his name, stuck out my hand and shook his warmly. I said, “ Thanks Mr. Rogers for all that you do for children on television.” He just smiled and said, “Thank you.”
At that point, the clerk behind the counter, a young man in his twenties, shouted “Mr. Rogers!” His face beamed, his eyes widened and all of a sudden he morphed into a 7-year-old. He went on, “I watched you when I was a little boy.”
At that moment, they were both exposed to the “Fred Effect.” Fred was an ordained minister, but had no congregation. Ironically, he created one. It was made up of thousands of children who drank from a well for more than 31 seasons. His pulpit was cobbled in a studio, depicting miniature buildings of downtown Pittsburgh. He stayed on message year after year — he spoke it, sang it, and gave it liturgical value — every child is special, unrepeatable, and worthy of our attention and respect. It was the Gospel in nutshell.
How the neighborhood has changed! When asked not long ago about how Fred would react to the border crisis and the separation of children from their parents, his widow, Joanne Rogers said simply, “It would break his heart.” A true leader leads with both head and heart. Psychologist Daniel Goleman said that one of the major traits of a good leader, and a cornerstone of emotional intelligence,is empathy. It is the ability to feel for others, to express concern for others, to understand the perspective of others.
Mr. Rogers lived this from the inside out, and it came out of his own wounds. As a little boy, Fred was overweight and sickly. He was ridiculed in school and called “Fat Freddy” by school bullies. He persevered and through the encouragement of people like his grandfather McFeeley, he gained confidence to persist.
Years later, when a little boy in a wheel chair came into the studio, late for the show, Fred knelt next to him and they sang together, “I am special.” I suspect if Fred Rogers met a handicapped reporter who had tremors from a congenital disorder, he would have smiled and warmly welcomed him — not mocked him. To bridge the racial divide, Fred invited black officer Francois Clemmons to sit next to him in a small wading pool. Fred washed and dried his feet.
Sounds familiar. Thanks Fred and Merry Christmas.