2016-06-30

Fred RogersOn a sunny Sunday afternoon, in that bleak season of 1997, I knelt in the front yard of my suburban Texas home, in a mood anything but festive, trying to arrange Christmas lights. Inside that home, my marriage was falling apart. I knew these might be the last holidays I would ever spend in this home, with this family. And as I worked, my mind raced with questions, all of them painful.

When would Catherine and I break the news to our two children, Melanie, who had just turned eighteen, and six-year-old Patrick? What words could we possibly use to soften the blow? Should we wait until after the holidays to tell them? Could we hold it together until then? What would my parents and Catherine's family think when they heard?

There was also this question that day, one that caused as much shame and dread in me as the rest. How could I possibly tell my famous friend in Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers, the gentle icon of public television's Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, that my wife and I were about to split up?

It seemed such a wildly unlikely predicament then, having to share that news with Fred. It still seems remarkable today that he and I would have known each other at all. But I had indeed met him, traveling from Texas to Pittsburgh two years before to profile Mister Rogers for my newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, then embracing his surprising invitation to friendship.


Looking back, it seems no coincidence that our unlikely acquaintance would come when it did, in the darkest, most difficult period of my life — five years or so when I wrestled with profound depression and self-loathing, complex and painful feelings about my father (Fred called these various struggles my "Furies"), and finally, the catastrophic illness and heroic spiritual journey of my younger brother, Steve. In any event, within a few months of our meeting in the fall of 1995, in a series of e-mail messages and telephone calls, and in several visits to Pittsburgh, I began to share with Fred the tattered state of my insides.

Each time I did, he responded with what can only be described as supernatural love, wholly without judgment, and with perfect clarity, wisdom, and compassion. "Anything mentionable is manageable," he would say, inviting me to share further. Or he would paraphrase his good friend, the Roman Catholic priest and celebrated author Henri Nouwen, by saying, "That which is most personal is most universal." As I poured out my heart to Fred, beginning in those early days of our friendship, it began to seem like I was testing him, searching for a foible, for something I could say or do that would finally render him incapable of unconditional regard.

And on that sunny December afternoon in 1997, I was sure I had finally found it. He was a man who had devoted his life to children and their families, and I was a man about to destroy his own. I finally summoned my nerve, went inside to our computer, and typed out a letter to my friend, tears of remorse streaming down my cheeks. After years of counseling and struggle, my marriage was probably ending and I was the one ending it, I told Mister Rogers in my letter that day. Could he forgive such a person? Could he continue to love such a man?

His reply arrived within the week, dated December 20, 1997, two full pages on the stationery of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, written in Fred's pinched, meticulous, highly distinctive hand. I did not make it through the first paragraph before I again began to cry.

My dear Tim,
Bless your heart. I feel so for you—for you all—but, Tim, please know that I would never forsake you, that I will never be disappointed with you, that I would never stop loving you. How I wish we could be closer geographically! I'd get in my car, drive to your house, knock on your door, and, when you answered I'd hug you tight. You are a beautiful man, inside and out, and those who care about you are privileged to share your pain...As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact I'm fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of "powerlessness." Join the club; we are not in control: God is....You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God's beloved son.


On February 28, 2003, the day after Fred's death from stomach cancer at age seventy-four, I published an essay in the Star-Telegram describing our unlikely friendship. For the next several days I was inundated with hundreds of letters, e-mails, and telephone messages from newspaper readers eager to share their own memories of Mister Rogers, and the impact he and his long-running children's program had on their lives. Scores of young adults wrote of the sense of security they felt growing up with him, of learning from Mister Rogers about their own value and what it meant to love. Parents wrote of entrusting their children to Mister Rogers for a half hour each day; the kindly, wise, civilizing influence in a world increasingly bereft of kindness, wisdom, and civility.

As I answered those messages, I was pleased to assure the readers that Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers were indeed one and the same, that in real life Fred was as he appeared on television, the gentle embodiment of goodness and grace.

But I also told them that, in my opinion, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood revealed only a fraction of his human greatness. Knowing him from television alone, it was tempting to see him as a man who might actually live in his Neighborhood of Make Believe (a popular puppet segment of his show), a person of epic goodness, no doubt, but also a man of innocence and naïveté, who, as a result, might be little acquainted with the grittier realities of life (though his program dealt unflinchingly with issues like divorce, death, and violence). It was that seeming innocence that made Mister Rogers such an inviting target for satire.

There was innocence about Fred in person, to be sure. He was a vegetarian who would never eat "anything that had a mother." He wore a goofy-looking swimming cap and goggles for his daily morning swims. He forever carried a camera, pulling it out with great delight to photograph people he had met for the first time.

But he was also a man fully of this world, deeply aware of and engaged in its difficulties, speaking often of death, disease, divorce, addiction, and cruelty and the agonies those things wrought on people he loved. He worked very hard, a lifelong student of children and child development who agonized over each word and gesture in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. ("I feel such a responsibility to do my best for the children," he told me once before he sat down to tackle a new script.) He was a firm taskmaster on the Mister Rogers set, especially if things were not quite to his satisfaction. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he devoured books by the great spiritual writers and was constantly preoccupied with spiritual questions himself. He rose before six each morning to pray for dozens of people by name. He was perhaps the most intelligent person I've ever known. But in my mind, something else was at the heart of his greatness. It was his unique capacity for relationship, what Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod once called "a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy." That was true with almost every person he met, be it television's Katie Couric or a New York City cabdriver; the Dalai Lama or the fellow handing out towels at the health club where Fred went to swim. Fred wanted to know the truth of your life, the nature of your insides, and had room enough in his own spirit to embrace without judgment whatever that truth might be.

Even mine.

"Your wounded heart is a very beautiful heart," Fred wrote to me once in the midst of the Furies. "In fact, it has probably allowed you to understand the hearts of all others who are 'wounded.' And whose isn't, in some way? Some are just a little more obvious than others. Please know that I think of you and pray for you every day... "

Catherine and I made it through Christmas in 1997, and put off telling the kids about the looming separation. Just before New Year's, I left by myself for the mountains of New Mexico for several days of reading, writing, and much praying and soul-searching. As is often the case with me, time alone in the brisk mountain air brought healing and clarity. It was then that I realized (once again) that I had mistakenly blamed my wife for my own old wounds. The real issue was not Catherine, or our marriage, but the man looking back at me in the mirror, and I managed to convince my wife of that when I returned to Texas.

Which led to Fred's next letter, dated January 14, 1998.

My dear Tim,
Your letter greeted me when I got in last night: "Catherine and I are not going to separate," I read, and my heart jumped, and my lips said, "Thank God." You've been through so much together and you're continuing to grow in such important ways: I rejoice for both of you—and of course for Patrick and Melanie. I hope someday you'll know—deep down—how important it is for me to have such a trusting and trustworthy friend. As you probably do know: I pray for you and thank God for you every day. My love is with you always.

Today, Catherine and I are the happiest married couple we know. She is the love and anchor of my life, the last voice I hear every night, and the person with whom I share my heart over the first cup of coffee every morning. Our house is a place of happiness and peace. The Furies are an increasingly distant memory. But with Fred as my friend, I wonder how it could have been otherwise. What demons could withstand such a perfectly and consistently loving assault?
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