It's good to see that the U.S. Postal Service has issued a stamp a few days ago to honor a gentle man who was a hero and friend to so many young people who grew up from the '60s through 2000.
Fred Rogers, known to most of us simply as "Mister Rogers," was a fixture on public TV for nearly 40 years, starting locally in Pittsburgh, then on the CBC for a few years before launching on PBS in 1968. "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" ran on PBS until 2001, two years before Fred Rogers' death at 76.
I had the chance to meet him and hear him explain why he kept his show soft and gentle and slow-paced, even as glitzy fast-paced programs like "Sesame Street" were getting all the attention and accolades.
"The space between the TV set and the young viewer -- those few feet -- is a holy space," he told the audience when he received a Christopher Award in 2002, just about a year before he died. "It's a space that can be used to educate, explain and comfort a child, to let him or her know that it's ok to be just who you are."
When I heard him explain that concept, I realized why he kept his program low-key. He was the friendly neighbor and a man kids could feel comfortable with, especially kids in homes without a soft and compassionate father figure. The daily opening ritual on the show -- coming in the door with a smile and a soft hello as he changed from his jacket to a cardigan and from street shoes to sneakers -- put him on a different level with his viewers -- still an adult, but a non-judgemental one you could talk with and let your fears and insecurities out just a bit. He was a man who could tell you, it's ok; whatever you feel inside, it's ok to be yourself.
I was at the Christopher Awards in my capacity as the PR person for the annual awards program...something I've been doing for more than 20 years and which I'll be doing again in May for the 69th Christopher Awards.
That year, when the formal program ended, I had a chance to spend some time with Mr.Rogers. A blizzard was raging outside and the car to take him to his hotel was delayed. He was going to walk the several blocks to the hotel, dragging his big suitcase through the windy snow and slush. I convinced him to wait, to stay inside until we were able to get a car. And we sat and talked.
In maybe 30 minutes or so, he learned from me that my father had passed away less than two years before and that I thought of him every day. I can't even remember the questions he asked me -- but he made the conversation more about me than about himself. He spoke in that quiet way that we all saw on TV for so many years, slowly and deliberately. He told me he had been a minister and, along the way, found that TV could be a powerful tool to minister to young people.
When I finally walked him downstairs to the car, he thanked me for the conversation and he said, "Your father must have been a special man, because he raised a good person in you."
I was blown away; in fact, tears came to my eyes. And for days after that, I was sort of floating, feeling I had been in the presence of a truly special person, someone truly touched by God.