Beloved Fred Rogers never threw away a child's letter to him.
"He respected the kids who wrote them. He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred," said Heather Arnet, who was an assistant on his television program and spoke about the experience Saturday at Bethel Park public library.
She helped with the research for the book "Dear Mister Rogers," published by Penguin Press in 1996.
She consulted the letters kept in a warehouse and tracked down those who sent them.
"Dear Mister Rogers" is a collection of letters from children to Rogers.
Arnet recently volunteered to participate in a speaking program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and that group chose the topic of Mister Rogers and his letters.
The Bethel Park presentation drew such audience members as Sharon Silver, who teaches child development at Mt. Lebanon High School and plans to devote a week of classes on Rogers for the benefit of the preschoolers and high school students who oversee them.
Bethel Park Librarian Cheryl Napsha, who knew Rogers when he visited the Latrobe library while she worked there, also stayed for the talk.
A typical letter said, "Today my dog died. I was very sad. He will always be in our hearts. This afternoon we had a little funeral." This one was written by a child named Avita, who drew tears along the side of the letter.
"This is not a letter you would send to Brad Pitt," Arnet said. "This was not fan mail. Most of them were grappling with real issues."
In response, "No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," she said. He signed each letter and oversaw the writing by assistants such as Arnet. He received 50 to 100 pieces of mail each day.
In the early days of the show, Rogers and his wife wrote responses on their dining room table.
Arnet showed the audience video clips from the show, which premiered on the Public Broadcasting System in February 1968.
The show's famous opening had him entering the door while singing. "It is an amazing American iconic moment," Arnet said.
She said the show had no prerecorded music and Johnny Costa's musicians were playing each time as Mister Rogers walked in the door. "You feel that. They didn't shortcut anything."
One of her favorite memories was when Rogers' grandson visited the set and she observed how well they got along.
She remembered how hard it was to track down some of the letters, ones that were signed only with a child's name and city and state.
She had to do detective work, such as tracking down a business mentioned in a corporate letterhead.
What was the secret of the show's success? "Mr. Rogers never talked down to children. When they wrote to him, he took them seriously."
She said he took the mystery out of the adult world by explaining many things to children. "He never said there was a separate adult world. And he made the world accessible and safer for them," Arnet said.
Al Lowe is freelance writer.