My friend, Mr. Rogers
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In 1982 I was working for a broadcast production company that was interested in branching out into children's television. I was given the tasks to research the subject, interview the major players and make suggestions on puppets, format and content for a pilot program.
I was sent to CBS studios in New York City and met Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) and Hugh Brannum (Mr. Green Jeans). I was introduced to one of the producers at Sesame Street, and I met puppeteer Bil Baird at his workshop (where a few of the famous Sound of Music puppets hung from the ceiling.) I also met young Julie Taymor, who was gracious and demonstrated some of the shadow puppets she had created.
Then I met Mr. Rogers.
Fred Rogers was being interviewed at the Manhattan HBO studios, and I was given the privilege of sitting in the "green room" with the famous children's television personality. "Ten minutes," the producer said as I closed the door behind me.
Mr. Rogers stood up from a folding chair, extended his hand and said in his famous voice, "Hello. I'm Fred Rogers."
I extended my hand and said sheepishly, "I'm Chris de Vinck."
Well, you would have thought that this man had just met a long-lost brother. He smiled and said how happy he was to meet me. I tried to explain to him the idea for the children's television program I was working on, but then the conversation oddly turned to me.
Mr. Rogers wanted to know about my work, about my life and about my family. I pulled out of my wallet some pictures. "This is my wife Rosemary, Roe. And here is our two-year-old son David, and Karen, our newborn."
Mr. Rogers pulled out his wallet and shared pictures of his wife and two boys with me, and for the next 18 years Mr. Rogers was no longer Mr. Rogers to me, but Fred -- my friend, spiritual adviser, surrogate father and greatest cheerleader.
When funding was withdrawn for a book I was writing about my severely disabled brother, Fred gave me $5,000 so I could fly around the country to interview people who, like my family, had lovingly tended to the disabled.
At the end of our weekly phone conversations, Fred often said, "Chris, you know who is in charge."
He had a deep faith, read Teilhard de Chardin, C.S. Lewis, Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott and Henri Nouwen. Each time one of my books was published, Fred called, ordered 50 copies, congratulated me and often said, "Chris, I am proud of you."
Many years later, when I asked Fred why he reached out to me, he said, "Chris, when we first met, you didn't ask me for my autograph, or to endorse a product or to join a cause. You seemed to like me for me, just Fred."
Fred's favorite number was 143, which was also a part of his e-mail address. (We emailed back and forth twice, sometime three times a day when email entered our lives.) "The word 'I' has one letter," Fred explained. "The word 'love' has four letters, and the word 'you' has three letters -- 143. I love you."
Fred was delighted when I discovered that his name was embedded in the word "FRiEnD."
Fred said again and again that the greatest gift you can give someone is your complete honest self.
In the summer of 2002, I was sitting next to Fred in his Nantucket summer place -- the family called it The Crooked House because, well, it was an old house that sat on a crooked foundation. Fred spread out a family photo album before me as he shared pictures of his childhood, telling me about his asthma and his weight problems as a boy.
I saw pictures of his mother and father and his sister Laney, and his dog Mitzie, and then Fred showed me a photograph of his mother and father's tombs in a small mausoleum. Fred suddenly pointed with his finger and tapped the photograph, "And this is where I'll be some day. Right here."
That October Fred said on the phone that his stomach has been gurgling. In December he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and he didn't tell me because I made the mistake of telling Fred once how uncomfortable I was when my friend, May Sarton, was dying and I felt inadequate and useless. Fred wanted to spare me any discomfort in the presence of his illness.
On Saturday, Jan. 4, 2003, Fred called to tell me that he was going to the hospital that Monday for some tests. Not to worry. So I didn't worry. After all, I had seen him on television just the week before as the Grand Marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade with Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby. There was Fred, as always, smiling, waving and looking as healthy as ever.
Fred endured cancer surgery that Monday. Twenty-six days later I received my last email from Fred, which said, in part:
I miss you. Bless your heart. I'm sorry to complain: I'm really tired, but I must do what I'm required to do. Thank you AGAIN AND AGAIN for all your prayers. That's the kind of sustenance I'm needing every minute of every day and night. Love to you and Roe and the children, as always, and thank you again and again and again and again ...
Fifty-two days after his surgery, Fred Rogers died on Feb. 27, 2003, 10 years ago this week.
One of Fred's favorite quotes from literature was a small line from the famous book, "The Little Prince": "What is essential is invisible to the eye."
I knew this man better than most. You cannot see friendship. You cannot see love. You cannot see humility. You cannot see kindness. You cannot see gentleness.
These are essential things, and these were the things sown into the fabric of Fred Roger's sweaters, into the songs that he wrote, into the man that he was, a prophet perhaps, a man convinced that each morning, despite the sorrows of this sometimes weary world, that it was going to be a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Fred made it clear to everyone that he met ... 143.
First Published February 24, 2013 12:00 am