Mister Rogers was my neighbor. Not as in make-believe TV neighbor, but as in actual neighbor, in suburban Pittsburgh. He lived in a six-bedroom house on Beechwood Boulevard. As a doctoral student and part-time journalist, I was managing in a ratty walk-up apartment. By car, it was just a few minutes between Fred’s home and mine.
Although I knew at the time that he’d grown up affluent, Fred McFeely Rogers — a significant, if oft-ridiculed, cultural icon — didn’t seem to care about people’s means. This gentle fellow who, with his rotation of sweaters, starred in the pioneering children’s series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 895 episodes, focused instead on people’s values. Especially kids’ values.
This year, on the golden anniversary of his television show and to celebrate the life of its star, who died in 2003, America seemed to have found its full Fred. Everywhere you looked, there he was — in bookstores, on merchandise, on TV again. Two documentaries — Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like — were well received. A feature film starring Tom Hanks is in production.
Lately, mindful of a national discourse more contentious than any we’ve seen in decades, I have been thinking a lot about Fred. His simple life lessons and sweet demeanor are sorely missed.
Among the things I noticed right off about my illustrious neighbor was how much it troubled him when a youngster couldn’t handle an in-person encounter. Once, when we were having lunch, our meal was interrupted by a teenager seeking an autograph. The boy was shaking terribly. Afterward, in my car, Fred said he was unnerved by the incident. No child ought ever unravel in his presence, he said. The lesson: Celebrity is not to be worshiped.
Despite his stature, Fred somehow retained an endearing humility. After I bumped into him at a local house party, he followed up with a note saying it was nice to see me there. I mean, who does that? On another occasion, he snapped a few photos of me in his yard and then sent along a package of shiny prints.
One time, after I bumped into him at a local house party, he followed up with a note saying it was nice to see me there.
Sometimes we’d talk on the phone. I’d ask him, for instance, what he thought of Eddie Murphy’s latest Fred Rogers impression on Saturday Night Live — which, invariably, he hadn’t seen yet. Occasionally, we wrote letters back and forth. When a magazine photo shoot I’d arranged yielded a portrait he particularly loved, he asked for a copy.
Years ago, I quoted Fred in the preface to a book of essays, praising his “exquisite philosophy… perfect in its sparkling humanity.” How damn lucky I was to be his neighbor. In particular, I so admired his refusal to submit to the easy lure of “star” privilege.
But here’s one thing I never acknowledged to Mister Rogers: Before the day I first met him in his living room, where I was on assignment for a magazine, I’d not seen an entire episode of his Neighborhood series. I doubt he’d have cared. He was centered, secure. Fortuitously, I recently found buried in my notes something Fred had mentioned to me. “You really cherish those people who loved you before you were famous,” he said.
So, another of Fred’s lessons: Ultimately, neither riches nor fame are what define a truly fulfilling life.
This article is from the November/December 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
In the last issue, Neuhaus wrote about the changing face of America’s gas stations.
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