I recently read Tim Madigan’s I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers. Tim Madigan is an award-winning journalist who has written critically acclaimed books, and he made friends with Mr. Rogers when he was writing a story about him and Captain Kangaroo. He himself did not watch Mr. Rogers that much, since he was more of a Captain Kangaroo fan. Well, Captain Kangaroo only spoke to him for a few minutes, while Mr. Rogers opened up to him for an hour and (for some reason) started a lasting friendship. Mr. Rogers offered Tim encouragement in trying times, and he helped him to heal by inviting him into his life.
As I read the book, the friendship between Tim and Fred reminded me of my own relationship with my grandmother, for Mr. Rogers continually sent Tim encouraging e-mails. When Tim wrote an article, Fred was always quick to praise him and to emphasize the value of what he was doing. Fred continually told Tim that he was proud of him, even when Tim confronted situations that did not make him proud of himself. When Tim’s wife was about to leave him, Fred offered his unconditional love and support. And that’s the way my grandma is with me: she sincerely praises my work and tells me what it means to her, even as she loves me for just being me.
Why did I read this book? For six months, I’ve been watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I never saw it when I was a kid, since my family didn’t get PBS. One night in September 2007, I couldn’t sleep, so I flipped through the channels to see what was on. I found Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and decided to watch it. I appreciated the wisdom that it offered, and I read some more about Mr. Rogers on the Internet. Over time, my interest in the show has waned, but I still watch it in the hope that a celebrity might be on it, as were Bill Bixby, Levar Burton, and David Copperfield. Plus, I’ve grown somewhat attached to the characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, such as King Friday, Lady Elaine, Lady Aberlin (who is cute), and Daniel the Tiger.
Although there have been times when Mr. Rogers has offered wisdom, he usually does not go all that deep, probably because his main audience is children. I read that Mr. Rogers had a theology degree, and I wondered what his thoughts were–about God, about life, about humanity, about a lot of things. And I was curious about Mr. Rogers the man. Was he really that nice in his day-to-day life, or was his television character an unrealistic facade?
Well, at his core, he was more or less like his television personality, only he wore glasses (so we were deceived!). He wore contacts on the show, but he hated them. Overall, he had more depth in real life than he conveyed on television. Tim Madigan said that he expected Mr. Rogers to be rather naive about life on the basis of his TV image, but he found that he was actually quite aware of the darker aspects of human existence: addictions, disruptive relationships, death, and the list goes on. But Fred believed that forgiveness and unconditional love were the ways to overcome evil.
Deep down, I have wondered if he really felt that way. When I watched his show about firemen, I asked myself if he truly would have accepted them if he knew what they were like off-camera. I’ve heard of firemen who are addicts. And I’m not singling out firemen. I just feel that kids grow up with an image that the adults they admire are perfect, heroic, and accepting, but things aren’t that rosy in the adult world. And that applies to all sorts of professions.
On You-Tube, I once saw Gary Collins interview Mr. Rogers on Hour Magazine, and Fred was praising all the work that Gary Collins was doing. I wondered if Mr. Rogers would accept him if he knew about his problems with alcohol, particularly his DUIs.
After reading Tim’s book, my hunch is “yes” on both counts. Mr. Rogers was aware of people’s struggles, yet he focused on the good that he saw in them. He stressed their value, not their flaws. Mr. Rogers even had compassion for a paroled child molester he read about who was trying to get a new start in life, for he realized that the released convict was struggling with his inner compulsions. If Mr. Rogers could sympathize with someone who did that, then he truly had unconditional love. For Mr. Rogers, good was the way to overcome evil.
And, although the show and Tim’s book present Mr. Rogers as virtually perfect, my hunch is that he wrestled with flaws of his own. In watching his show, how many times did I hear the song, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” Dozens. I doubt that a person would emphasize the need to control anger that much if he himself did not struggle with it. Mr. Rogers most likely dealt with the same frustrations that everyone faces, but he chose to pursue the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and generosity.
And Mr. Rogers helped Tim heal. Tim had problems because his father had never told him he was proud of him, but Fred helped Tim to sympathize with his father and consider the good things that he had done. Tim’s brother was dying, and Fred encouraged the brother that he was an inspiration because of his attitude of faith. And Fred assured Tim that it was all right to cry, which allowed Tim to let out all his bottled-up emotions of pain. And Fred did not help Tim overcome his inner demons–which Tim calls his “Furies”–by preaching to him, but rather through his unconditional love and acceptance. Tim also did not detect any pride in Mr. Rogers. Although he (and others) considered Fred to be a spiritual giant, they knew that Fred sincerely didn’t view himself in that way.
As far as Mr. Rogers’ theology was concerned, he saw God as a source of unconditional love and healing. He viewed people as good, so I don’t know what his belief on original sin was. But he himself attended a Presbyterian church, meaning that he drew his doctrine from Christianity on some level. He was good friends with Henri Nouwen, a renowned priest and author who left behind his prominence in the Ivy League to minister to all sorts of people, and Fred was sad when Nouwen died.
Nouwen wrote a book called The Wounded Healer, which I read in college. In it, Nouwen argues that our wounded state can actually help us as we minister to others. I could detect from Tim’s book that Fred himself was a wounded healer. When Fred was a child, bullies continually taunted him because he was shy and overweight, calling him “Fat Freddy.” He was a loner, and in his solitude he created stories with his puppets. In high school, a popular student for some reason reached out to him, and Fred genuinely appreciated that gesture of friendship. He was devastated when his friend died years later.
Fred used his experiences–both bad and good–as a motivation to love rather than to hate. He encouraged kids that they were special, and he reached out to a reporter who wasn’t even one of his fans. Celebrities have busy schedules and aren’t always generous with their time, but Mr. Rogers chose Tim Madigan as a friend.
Over time, as Tim overcame his inner Furies, he gradually lost touch with Mr. Rogers. He took him for granted and thought that they would be friends forever, since Mr. Rogers was healthy and took care of his body. He wasn’t prepared for Mr. Rogers’ death to cancer in 2002. That part of the book is sad, but the book didn’t end on a sad note. Tim says that he can still feel Mr. Rogers’ presence, and he attributes that to the existence of an afterlife. For Tim, Mr. Rogers is in heaven with Tim’s brother, Steve.
The book is a stirring account of the power of love and friendship, and it presents the personal side of one of America’s favorite television icons. If Fred Rogers was an example of how God wants us to be, then I can take comfort that God is like that as well.