March 7, 2003

Umbrella Heart

Mr. Rogers is dead. Long live Mr. Rogers! A royal sendoff is necessary for Mr. Rogers. To me he was that big. And he is not really gone, because he left so much behind.

He has a first name, Fred, but I do not use it. He will always be “Mister” to me. I met Mr. Rogers in the 1980’s in my living room. I watched him first with my daughter and then with my son, and I loved Mr. Rogers from the beginning. He came in every day and changed from his suit jacket and shoes to a cardigan sweater and sneakers.

My father did the same thing. When I was a small boy I would wait for him every night at the train station at the end of his commute. He would jump down from the train with a wide smile beneath the brim of his hat. As he walked down the platform with long strides, I would skip to keep up, while eating the half bag of peanuts that he always saved for me.

I chattered all the way home and followed him up to his walk-in bedroom closet where he changed out of his dressy work clothes. His suit, tie and dress shoes came off. His starched white button down shirt remained. Added were a maroon cardigan, brown work/play pants which were once part of a suit, and some old shoes. He was then ready for whatever exciting after dinner activity I could coax him into. Our evening together had begun.

So when Mr. Rogers changed his clothes it brought me back to my place as a small child. Although I would not get down on the floor with my children, I took my place beside them. Only small children watch Mr. Rogers. Only they understand him.

I loved his wonderful puppets with their simple story lines. It evoked a much younger and simpler time. I loved Lady Aberlyn, who reminded me of my next door neighbor, Mrs. Ellis. And the puppets King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday. Everyone on the show was nice.

“Nice” is not necessarily in vogue these days. Eddie Murphy did funny and vicious skits on Saturday Night Live showing what Mr. Rogers would be like if really deep down he was not nice. And that was fair too. We all have some darkness in us and I am sure that Mr. Rogers was no exception. But for thirty minutes a day, nice was good. As a jaded adult, I needed the reminder.

When I think of Mr. Rogers I think of his smile and his gaze. I knew that he was looking at me – right at me. He was focused on me and I liked the attention. It turns out that it was not my imagination. I was seeing and sensing the real Mr. Rogers.

Tom Junod reported on his experience of interviewing Mr. Rogers in Can You Say…”Hero”, originally published in Esquire and reprinted in The Best Spiritual Writing of 1999, edited by Philip Zaleski. It is an inspirational portrait.

He thought that he was doing the interview to learn about Mr. Rogers, but he quickly learned that was not Mr. Rogers’ agenda. Mr. Rogers wanted to learn about Tom. Tom reported, “There was an energy to him, a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy, and though I tried to ask him questions about himself, he always turned the questions back on me.” They spent several days together and Junod watched him do this over and over with others.

I had a similar experience last Fall when I interviewed Jerry Jud, the founder of Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center. I went to the interview to pick his brain for information and wisdom, but what I received was the fierce, loving presence of the man. He was intent on getting to know me and he focused all of his energies on doing so.

Mr. Rogers was a religious man and his goal was to live heaven on earth. He told Tom, “The connections we make in the course of a life – maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us. I’ve just met you, but I am invested in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.”

Being with Mr. Rogers changed Tom Junod. He wrote, “All I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella.”

People like Mr. Rogers and Jerry Jud challenge me. They challenge me to bring back the amazement and love of a small boy for a father. To have a child-like mind. To go back to that place before all the fear of connection was learned. They challenge me to encounter others with an umbrella heart.