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.
Kathleen Vallee Stein