February 28, 2003--the day Fred Rogers died. Like the surprising deaths of other important figures of our lives, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out eight years ago.
I say surprising, but perhaps his death shouldn't have surprised me. I knew that he was ill and that he was having surgery because Bill Isler, the President of Family Communications, had asked me -- on behalf of Fred -- if I would give a speech for him that spring, just in case Fred wasn't well enough to travel yet. Even so, Fred's death was truly shocking. Perhaps because he was so associated with children, with hope, and with our future itself, I felt he would always be with us. So when I heard about his death early that February morning eight years ago, it literally seemed unfathomable.
Educator and reporter John Merrow just posted a special tribute to Fred on his website. In reading the reasons why we miss Fred, I have a few of my own to add to John's and the other commentators who wrote in.
First, Fred was the consummate example of an adult who was an ongoing learner. The stories of how he continued to study children's development and learning are legendary. But what may be less well known is that he studied adult development and learning too. I had a chance to see that in action because I was the guest expert on some shows he experimented with beginning in 1980 -- Mister Rogers Talks to Parents About (Superheroes, Starting School, etc.) For the first show, he adopted the television style of the times -- fast cuts, lots of jazzy production elements, and it just didn't work well. It was jumpy and jarring. Little by little, Fred and his producers refined the show so when he concluded this series, he had created programming that was a tour de force. He had dropped all of the fancy and -- in fact intrusive -- production gimmicks and concentrated on building a relationship with parents, just as he did with children.
For Fred, it was always about relationships -- all the time, everywhere. So many children felt that they really knew Mister Rogers and that he knew them -- miraculously because that sense of knowing came right through the television screen. However, some of them, like John Merrow's daughter Kelsey, shrieked and hid behind her father when she met Fred in person and he sang "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood," just to her. Fred said that happened to him all of the time.
The relationships that Fred built with people through television and in person were not ephemeral -- they lasted. My daughter took photographs of Fred and me on the set of the "Mister Rogers Talks to Parents" shows and hung them in every college dorm room she had. She still has one in her office -- and I have the others in my own office. I even have the Trolley that Fred signed to me, though his signature faded away years ago. When Fred visited my office once, it was like a rock performer walked in. All of the adults seemed truly star struck. And when my mother was ill and hospitalized, Fred sent a book to her. I left the book on the table beside Mother's hospital bed, with the page open to Fred's loving note. I notice that his kindness radiated. Mother was treated like royalty when the hospital staff noticed that Fred was her friend!
John Merrow writes eloquently about why he misses Fred Rogers so much, especially now because some members of Congress seem intent on eliminating funding for public television and radio. And on his blog, he posts the fantastic video of Fred Rogers persuasively defending PBS in the U.S. Senate in 1969. Watch it, if you haven't seen it.
I miss Fred Rogers too, but I now know that his legacy is unstoppable. It lives on in those of us he continues to inspire. It lives on in the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at St. Vincent College in his hometown, Latrobe, Pa. Like Milton Chen, I feel honored to be one of the planners of that Center, beginning with Fred himself before his sudden illness and death.
Whenever there was something really important in the news that affected children and families, Fred Rogers spoke out. I especially remember his eloquent show to children and families following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
John Merrow, you do that too. In rereading your blogs for writing this one, I am reminded once again that you speak out with knowledge, with uncommon insight and with passion whenever there is something that affects the healthy development and learning of children and families. In you, Fred Rogers' legacy lives strong!
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