How did you come to know Mister Rogers on such a deep friendship level?
He didn't give very many interviews, and he'd never talked about his faith before on television. When I asked him for both of those things, I didn't realize at the time how unusual those requests were, or that I was asking a lot. There was a 3 or 4 week period after I had asked for the interview where I was waiting. I was going through my Virginia Beach newspaper, and there was an opinion piece by Don Feder called "It's a Psychobabble Day in the Neighborhood." I was so offended by it, not so much by the argument, because I really think there are people who believe empty praise is the way to raise a child's self-esteem, but the fact that Don Feder had lumped Mister Rogers in with that group. So I wrote a nasty letter saying, "Shame on you for criticizing somebody who is trying to do something positive for my kids." And when I sent that op-ed piece and the letter to Mister Rogers' people just as an FYI, I never realized at the time that that was the thing that would make him realize I was sincere enough to be trusted. I think that sort of laid the groundwork of trust. That started something, and we never disconnected after that point, we always wrote each other every 2 or 3 months religiously for the next 9 years until he passed away.
The book is called "The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers." How was Mister Rogers' faith simple?
Sometimes the word "simple" is confused with the word "simplistic," and it wasn't. His philosophy of life is not simplistic, but it's simple in that there are some basic tenets to it that seem simple but are so profound and so hard to live out on a daily basis. Probably the central tenet of his faith and the theme of the Neighborhood is just the idea of loving your neighbor. When I asked him who is your neighbor, he said, whoever you happen to be with at the moment. So right there, there's no loophole-that means we have to love everybody.
He said, once you realize that everybody's your neighbor, you have a choice. You can either be an advocate or an accuser. An accuser is somebody who only sees what's awful about themselves so they look through those eyes and look for what's awful about their neighbor. An advocate is somebody who looks through the eyes of God at their neighbor and sees what's good about that person because they're created in God's likeness. That's a very simple, basic truth, but to live that out in our daily lives is tremendously difficult.
Do you think today's world is too cynical to learn those lessons Mister Rogers was trying to teach?
One of the things that shows the cynicism is all the urban legends about Mister Rogers that are out there-everywhere I go somebody asks me was he really a sniper in the military, did he really have upper-body tattoos. We're cynical because how can somebody be that good as Mister Rogers. But I found that even if people on the outside seemed jaded and cynical about Mister Rogers, on the inside they really respond to it. I've done a lot of radio interviews, and even the male interviewers, they'll be reading an excerpt from the book or just be talking about them, and they'll just break down and start crying. As much as we are cynical, we all want to believe in that kind of goodness. And I think people do, I think people, even if on the outside they seem a little critical or jaded about Mister Rogers, they absolutely want to believe in the goodness that he espoused.
Where did that goodness come from for him? How did he remain so steady over all of those years?
He was really sensitive as a child, and that doesn't always translate into goodness. He was bullied when he was 8 years old, and had an awful experience where he was chased by boys who called him "Fat Freddy." You hear so many stories these days about that happening to children, and it turns them into bullies, or worse. He was sensitive but he made the right choices in response to that. When he was angry or upset about something, instead of hurting people, he would go to the piano and he would play. Or he would play with puppets and he would express negative emotions and maybe aspects of himself that he was a little shy of, through the puppets. I think having a lonely childhood, being so sensitive, I think those things all sort of worked together to make this man who decided really early on that he was never going to look on the outsides of people, he would always look below the surface and see what was essential about them. And I think that was really the core of his goodness, his ability to see past outsides and look for what's good in people.