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Sarah Gassen: My talk with Mr. Rogers (yes, that Mr. Rogers)

Sarah Gassen: My talk with Mr. Rogers (yes, that Mr. Rogers)

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Fred Rogers is one of my heroes.

I can picture some of you laughing, rolling your eyes.

You go right ahead.

I’ll be here, thinking about the incredible example Fred Rogers set by seeing every child and adult as a full human worthy of care and interest.

I have a photo of Mr. Rogers in my office at work, and a photo of him in my office at home.

My first memory is watching Mr. Rogers on the Zenith. I was about 2. I later became very concerned when he sang that you can never go down the drain — the thought hadn’t occurred to me.

Decades later, and over my fear of drains, I was covering education for the Star on Sept. 11, 2001. I visited classrooms and had seen how confused and alarmed children were about the attacks. How confused and alarmed we all were.

I thought about who could help kids and parents talk about this sadness, this new uncertainty.

Mr. Rogers, of course.

So I called up his company, Family Communications, and spoke with David Newell, who handled public relations — and also played Mr. McFeeley the “speedy delivery!” man on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

About two weeks later, Mr. Rogers called me.

We talked about how children experienced the awfulness and fear of the attacks — how they could see the endless video replay of the World Trade Center towers collapsing and not understand it wasn’t happening again and again. Turn off the television, he said.

We talked about how everyone was struggling — including ourselves. “We adults must do all we can to act like adults and not to give in to the fear,” he said.

He was thoughtful in his conversation. I’d only known him through the television, of course, but I had the feeling that he was searching for a way to make sense of it all, too. And he was concerned about what would come next, how we would respond to each other in the wake of the attacks.

The landscape has changed, for the worse. His comments are as relevant today as they ever were:

“It’s all right to be angry, but it’s not all right to hurt other people. It’s a very strong message, but our children and the children of the world need to be able to grow up with that.”

“The easiest thing is to lash out; the hardest thing is to work through the anger and to come to some sort of resolution that allows you to move on in life rather than get stuck.”

“One of the worst feelings in the world is the feeling of helplessness.”

During our conversation, he referenced four tenets of living that he said “all the sages from all the ages” had agreed would lead to a good life. He couldn’t recall all four off the top of his head.

Our time came to a close, and I ran to a meeting and then out to lunch. When I returned, the red voicemail light was blinking.

“Hello, Sarah. This is Fred Rogers. In Pittsburgh.”

He’d remembered:

“Have some quiet time alone every day. Don’t get caught up in buying things you don’t need. Take care of the environment. Help other people.”

I hit #9 for “save” every 30 days for more than a decade, until we switched newsroom phone systems and the message was lost.

My husband and I went to see the documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It’s wonderful, and surprising.

Fred Rogers’ love wasn’t conditional. His attention didn’t depend on earning good grades or having money or special talents. Being you was enough to be worthy of love, and of loving.

Some still find his gentleness confrontational, or even suspicious. He didn’t fit into the one-dimensional mold for American masculinity. He was mocked for saying, and believing, that every child is special just as they are.

We need Mr. Rogers. We need his strength and his certainty in our human capacity for good.

We need his courage to care.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen is the Editorial Page editor of the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at sgassen@tucson.com

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