This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on March 2, 2003, 4 days after Fred Rogers died.
“Mr. Rogers died!” my 30-year-old daughter cried into the phone. A part of her childhood passed away with 74-year-old Fred Rogers.
I cried as I remembered my daughter as a little girl, watching Mr. Rogers as she sat in front of the television in her flannel pajamas. He changed his shoes and sweater while he sang about his mythical neighborhood.
I knew my daughter had a vivid imagination from a young age. She could focus on a flower or a picture book for long periods of time – much longer than the average toddler. She had imaginary friends that took her on flights of fancy as she swooshed back and forth on the backyard swing on warm summer days.
“Mommy, Peter and I are going to the ocean,” she called out from her perch at the top of the slide. Bert and Ernie and the gang on Sesame Street held her attention for a while, but it was the quiet, mild-mannered Mr. Rogers who spoke to her reserve and thoughtful spirit.
My daughter and I spoke by telephone about Mr. Rogers and what he meant to us. She lives in Brooklyn, pursuing the life of an artist, achieving her dream in New York City.
Mr. Rogers told children to be true to themselves. My daughter took his message to heart, even when some of her classmates didn’t understand her artistic approach to life. She eventually made it to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and met other kids who knew what Mr. Rogers meant about being who they were, no matter what others thought.
When I heard Mr. Rogers passed on, I felt a different pain than my daughter. She lost an icon – I lost a contemporary.
When I watched Mr. Rogers with his puppets, fish tanks, and sweaters, I watched from an adult perspective. I laughed at the parodies of his show and thought he was sappy. But as I watched the wide brown eyes of my daughter seeing magic in the puppets and props, I gave a prayer of thanks for Fred Rogers’ gentleness in a hostile world.
As my daughter finds a place to stand on the subway on her way to Manhattan, there is a vestige of Mr. Rogers to help hold the strap as the train lurches and moves forward to the city. She remembers a gentle and confident man who didn’t give a damn about the critics.
Critics will always be among us, but guys like Mr. Rogers come but once in a lifetime.
Mr. Rogers came into the home of a little girl who saw the world in a different light and told her that was OK. He came into the life of an adult who watched her tiny child gain confidence from a gentle man others made fun of. We both gained reassurance, though in different ways.
Since my children are grown and I do not yet have grandchildren, I don’t watch children’s television shows. In our much more coarse and turbulent times, I wonder what 3- and 4-year-olds are watching. I hope there are some soft-spoken characters, be they human or puppets, who will instill a sense of acceptance to whimsical and imaginative children. The world must always nurture artists.
Thank, you Mr. Rogers, for your courageous gentleness and creative voice that spoke to a generation of children. We bid a sad farewell to your neighborhood and wish Godspeed to your gentle spirit.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on February 18, 2001.
On February 7, 2001, Dale Evans joined her beloved Roy, on the happy trail at last. I was saddened to learn of her death. It is the end of an era, a very happy and loving one, and it may never return.
When I learned of her passing, I was taken back to a jungle gym on a hot summer morning in the 1950’s. My two friends and I were reenacting a scene from the Roy Rodgers and Dale Evan’s TV show. We needed one person to be “Roy,” one to be the “Indian,” and one to be “Dale.”
My playmates were both male and wanted me to be Dale because I was a girl. I wanted to be the Indian so I could crouch at the top of the jungle gym and pounce on Roy as he rode by on his horse Trigger.
After a heated discussion, we decided that Dale was back at the ranch. One boy would play Roy, while the other boy and I would be Indians, ready to pounce. The boys knew I was a serious tomboy and would never play Dale Evans. Much to my mother’s dismay, I could beat up most of the boys in my neighborhood, especially if they tried to kiss me.
Everyone in my neighborhood watched the Roy Rogers and Dale Evan's show on their black and white TV. As my brothers and sisters and I sprawled in front of it on lazy summer afternoons, we watched shows about brave men who went off on adventures, as their worried women looked on.
Dale always looked concerned as Roy rode away on Trigger. That’s why I wanted to be Roy, so I could ride away on a horse. That’s why my mother worried.
Eventually I grew to accept my feminine side and began to like boys, when not competing with them. I went through the sixties, feminism, liberation, glass ceilings, divorce, and remarriage. Somewhere in there I began to reconsider Dale Evans. She wasn’t Dale Rogers, she was Dale Evans. She kept her own name.
Several years ago I watched an aging Roy and Dale being interviewed on a TV show. The host challenged Dale, and asked her to defend her supporting role, always subservient to Roy, the man. I’ll never forget her answer.
She said she was honored to be Roy’s wife, that they relished their traditional roles. Her dedication to her man was unabashed, unapologetic, and clear as a dinner bell. She looked the host in the eye and told him that every morning Roy brought her a cup of coffee in bed.
A cup of coffee in bed is a small gesture; a thank you to a woman who stood by as Roy jumped on Trigger’s back and took off. She always said, “be careful, Roy.” Although I wanted to be Roy in the worst way, I admired Dale’s leather skirt with the fringe. Though she didn’t charge off on a horse, she did enjoy a cup of coffee in bed.
Eventually I began to want to be like Dale, a girl who kept her name and looked cool in her skirt with the fringe. Her confidence in her role helped me forge mine. It was different from hers, but I felt free to choose my own path.
At the end of the show, the couple crooned the famous tune about “happy trails,” and “seeing you again.” I am confident that Dale will find her Roy as she joins him on a new trail. Perhaps this time she will jump on the horse while Roy admonishes her to be careful.
No matter where they find themselves, they will find their way – together.
This piece was published on January 5 in the Whittier Daily News and today, January 7, in the Pasadena Star News.
It was in junior high school civics class that I was introduced to the concept of the melting pot. The teacher said that our country was a nation of immigrants and that when people from different countries came to our shores and became American citizens, they fell into a big pot and melted together. No matter where you came from, when you took the loyalty oath, you were as American as anyone else.
I understood the concept, but as I looked around the classroom at my fellow students, I saw a big bowl of Cool Whip. I was raised in a small town in Ohio where ninety-nine percent of the residents were white, Anglo Saxon, and Christian.
In grade school, I opened my lunch box and pulled out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread, which was as white as bread can get. I paid three cents for a carton of white milk. The kids who looked different had red hair. The rest of us were brunettes and blonds. All the people on TV were white. It was all I saw.
There were a few African Americans in my high school, a couple of Jewish kids and, as far as I knew, there were no Muslims, or even atheists. There was a small population of Mexican-Americans, families who came to work in the fields and settled in town. I graduated from Cool Whip High and set out into the world.
I had a Jewish roommate in college. She rushed sororities that wouldn’t accept Jews and we would joke about it. My first exposure to diversity taught me that some people don’t like people who aren’t exactly like them.
Several years later I married a Jewish man and my education in ethnic differences expanded. Now I was the one who wasn’t wanted because I wasn’t exactly the same. When I walked into my husband’s childhood home, the difference was palpable. His parents were refugees from the Holocaust. Although my husband attended a school much like mine, in Texas, his home life was very different. His parents melted into the pot, but retained a distinct culture that made them no less American. They enriched the pot. They did not contaminate it.
I have spent the last thirty-six years in Los Angeles, and have seen firsthand how new Americans melt into the larger society. Many of my co-workers were immigrants or first generation Americans. Over the years, staff potlucks have expanded my palate. I was introduced to Christmas tamales at one office, which were made by the receptionist’s 100-year-old Mexican grandmother.
I worked in an office with a young African-American woman who, born to a fourteen-year-old mother, came up hard. I watched in awe as she raised three children, earn two master’s degrees, and became a seasoned professional in her field. I consider her to be a good friend.
There are thousands of people in Los Angeles for whom English is their second language. I started a Spanish language study course a few years ago. One of my colleagues, a recent immigrant from Mexico, helped me with my pronunciation and I helped him with his. It is hard it is to learn another language, particularly with my aging brain, but I am making progress.
I had a medical issue a few years ago, diagnosed by Dr. Chen. He sent me to Dr. Chang for further tests and I ended up in Dr. Chin’s office for treatment. I call my dentist, Dr. Kim, a painless dentist because she is so gentle. My Syrian born auto mechanic earned my trust and undying gratitude when he kept my Camry running for 230,000 miles.
Enter Donald Trump, who kicked off his campaign for president by attacking Mexicans. One of his first acts as president was to try to keep Muslims out of the United States. An equal opportunity offender, he has taken the essence of our country, a nation of immigrants, and spat on it.
Unfortunately, he has riled up the Cool Whip enthusiasts who want to make American great again by destroying the very foundation on which we stand. Although Trump has left a swath of destruction in his first year in office, the groundswell that began the day after his election, when citizens took to the streets to demonstrate against his hateful rhetoric, will prevail.
Cool Whip crusaders yearn for a past that never existed. Cool Whip is fake. It looks like whipped cream, but it contains no cream or milk. It is a nondairy product. Don’t get me wrong, I love Cool Whip as much as anybody, but it is faux whipped cream. It’s not real, just as the country that Trump promised his followers we would return to is not real. It never was, and it never will be.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on November 28, 1999, when iPhones and email were in their nascent state.
Kathleen Vallee Stein