With some members of Congress intent on eliminating federal funding for public radio and television, a friend sent me this remarkable video. It reminds us of what we lost when the remarkable Fred Rogers died eight years ago this Sunday, but it has a second powerful message about the value of public television and radio, then, now and tomorrow:
Many of us in broadcasting and the helping professions have their own stories about Fred, who was one of the most generous and sincere human beings I have ever known. Of course, I ‘knew’ Fred from watching The Neighborhood with my young children, but we became friends when — believe it or not — he wrote me a fan letter after hearing my documentary about children in mental institutions on NPR. That must have been in the late 1970s, and after that we would go see him whenever he came to DC for some public television event.
I used to visit him on Nantucket, when I was thinking about leaving NPR and trying my hand at television. That was in 1981 and 1982. I remember once I persuaded my daughter Kelsey, then 3 or 4, to come with the promise that he would sing the song to her. After about 30 minutes of conversation, I felt we should leave (not overstay our welcome), so I said we had to leave but asked if he would sing the song to Kelsey before we left. He said, ‘of course,’ and leaned over toward Kelsey, who was sitting next to me on the couch, about three feet from Fred.
He began singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood….” and Kelsey shrieked, jumped up, and hid behind me. I was totally embarrassed, but Fred took it in stride. He said it happens all the time. Kids were used to seeing him inside a box and couldn’t deal with the idea that he was a real person.
Fred was incredibly talented. He wrote all his own music, often in the little studio he built next to his Madaket cottage. His music director Johnny Costas, Mr. McFeeley, and one other member of the Neighborhood lived next to Fred and his wife and kids.
I also did a half hour documentary about him before I left NPR; I probably did it just so I could spend more time with him. He was a very special man. BTW, he was a fanatic about swimming. He had to swim 30 minutes a day, no matter what. Once told me how he checked into a motel late one night, discovered it did not have a pool, so checked out and drove until he found one with a pool.
Such a loss, one we still feel eight years later. I hope you will share your own stories about Fred, and of course we hope you are speaking out in support of public radio and television.