TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Won’t You Be My Neighbor

On Sept. 21, 1996, a sunny Saturday morning, I had settled in with a cup of coffee and the sports page when the telephone rang in our suburban Texas home. When I answered, I was surprised to hear the voice of Fred Rogers at the other end of the line. Within a few seconds I could tell that my friend was weeping.

“Tim, I just heard that Henri (Nouwen) died this morning in Holland,” Fred said. “I just had to talk to someone who understands how I feel.”

Fred and I had often discussed Henri, the Dutch priest and acclaimed spiritual writer who was also Fred’s good friend. But until that morning, Fred had listened as I poured out my tattered heart. (“Fred, I have a question to ask. Would you be proud of me?”) Now he trusted me enough to reveal a piece of his own. I realized that morning that our friendship was truly reciprocal. On a few other occasions over the years, Fred shared things that troubled him.

Those moments of his vulnerability are what I think about most now, after having seen the wonderful documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It poetically and tenderly documents his human greatness, but in an unstinting way.

It was said that the puppet in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Daniel Tiger, was his alter ego and in one episode, Daniel asks if he was a mistake.

Were it not for Fat Freddy, the chunky boy who was bullied, there might not have been a Mister Rogers.

His wife said she thought Fred seemed downcast after he filmed his last episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Shortly before his death, he asked her if she thought he would be going to heaven.

All of which is to say that, yes, Fred was one of the greatest human beings ever to walk our planet, but he did not come to us from a spiritual mountaintop. He was fully human instead, a person who grappled with the inner difficulties so familiar to the rest of us. I think there is comfort in knowing this. My regard for him has only grown.

Now, thanks to the documentary and to a feature film due out next year, this wounded healer returns to us at the moment of human history when is voice and spirit are needed most. However beautifully the documentary is achieved, I think that partially explains its popularity now.

What was balm it was to hear him and listen in a closing scene as he asked his audience to take a minute to remember those who have loved us into being.

But it was this was the line from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” that I remember more than any other. Fred said that all of us, however broken we might be, are called to be “healers of creation.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Dark Genius Of Humanity

How many really know you? How many know of your fear, your sadness, your shame, your anger, your depression? They are questions worth asking at any time, but particularly this week.

I had no clue who Kate Spade was, so her suicide registered faintly, but the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death jolted me. I saw a lot of living, a lot of pain in his 61-year old face, but he was traveling the world, doing things that most of us can only dream of doing, with joie de vivre and roguish panache. And dead now, from his own hand, in his France hotel room.

How many knew the truth of his life?

I’ve come to believe that the great tragedy of humanity is not our inevitable pain, the frailties and struggles but the isolation so many of us feel. The great Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, a transparent sufferer himself, famously said that what is most personal is most universal. By that he meant that those frailties are precisely what we have most in common with others. Yet we remain inclined to believe that we are unique, comparing our tattered insides with the outsides of others, not knowing that most of those others pretend like we pretend. The dark genius of humanity is our great ability to conceal the truth of our insides from one another. We are all such great actors.

I was damn good at it, too. In the mid-1990s, when I was enjoying success and recognition in my career, I was dying inside. I understand suicide, how the terrible disease of depression can trump all love and logic. I also understand how isolating depression can be. I’m lucky to be alive myself, frankly, lucky that the choice I eventually made was to try and defy the disease and reach out to others, Fred Rogers included.

I’ve traveled a long road to heal —  know that it takes patience and loads of self-acceptance, and trusted others who know the truth about your insides and find it a privilege to walk with you, sharing their own truths along the way. Finding those people takes some discernment … but they are everywhere, waiting.

This week I spent sacred hours talking about the deepest things with friends who know me to my marrow, who have walked with me through the darkness and now accompany me to this amazing place of light and peace. This week I read of skyrocketing suicide rates, and celebrity suicides and can’t help but wonder, how many really knew those who died.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Psych 101: How To Be (Really) Happy

In the autumn of 1995, on my first visit to the office of Fred Rogers in Pittsburgh, I noticed three Emmy Awards stacked in the clutter atop a filing cabinet, like neglected bookends. No trophy case for Fred.

I asked him about the awards.

“I don’t know how to talk of it,” the icon of children’s television said . “If it’s the outside stuff that’s going to nourish you …”

It was a passing comment, made before we sat down for the first of several long and wonderful interviews about important things. But in that moment, Fred touched upon what I think is a great tragedy of our age. We continue to believe that the outside stuff is going to nourish us, make us truly happy, bring peace and meaning to our lives.

My heart breaks especially for young people, the students obsessed with test scores and college admissions, grade point averages and getting a leg up on the world. It is really a surprise that studies show that nearly half of all college students feel deeply anxious or hopeless?

Which is why I found a recent story in the Washington Post story so poignant and hopeful. It described a Yale psychology class in which the professor, Laurie Santos, surprised her students one day by canceling her lecture. There was one huge caveat. They couldn’t use the 75 minutes to study, they had to enjoy it.

Laurie Santos
Laurie Santos

“Nine students hugged her,” wrote the Post’s Susan Svrluga. “Two burst into tears.”

A senior visited the Yale Art Gallery for the first time in four years. Others went to a recording studio and worked on a song. Another ate the lunch he had been skipping to study and played Frisbee. Another took a nap. (Do yourself a favor and read the whole story here.)

Word began to spread about the course entitled Psychology and the Good Life, and nearly a quarter of the Yale student body signed up. Santos designed the class a few years ago after witnessing the misery of so many young people on campus, an experience “far more crushing and joyless than her own college years,” the story said.

“I worry so much how they’re going to look back on it,” Santos said. “They feel they’re in this crazy rat race, they’re working so hard they can’t take a single hour off — that’s awful.”

But it’s not just young people, and not just this generation. It was in the 1800s that Henry David Thoreau wrote “the mass of men (and women, it’s safe to say,) lead lives of quiet desperation.”

That certainly describes my life in the mid-1990s, when I met Fred Rogers. As a man in my early 40s, my depression and despair were carefully hidden, but deep and seemingly impenetrable. Fred called them my Furies.

The cure, I believed, would be professional recognition. I believed that right up until I started winning a series of major awards for my writing. Needless to say, they did nothing to alleviate my inner torments, and if anything, made them worse. The awards, it turned out, were fool’s gold. I started to ask myself the question, if success and acclaim isn’t the point of all this, what is?

I’m still trying to answer that for myself, but it seems to have something to do with these things.

  • A commitment to personal and spiritual growth.
  • Trying to be a good husband, father and friend.
  • Attempting to use my work to serve, rather than to feather my own proverbial nest.

I’m not completely naïve. As a practical matter, we still need to eat, pay mortgages and help pay for college and for medical insurance. I have never turned down a royalty check for a book, so far as I recall. In fact, what we do in life might not change at all. It’s the why. And it seems that all the energy I used to channel into taming my demons has been put to much better use being more freely creative, and yes, productive.

In the meantime, I’ve awoken to mountain vistas, storm clouds over the ocean, quiet moments when the sunrises, long naps, Melissa McCarthy movies, guitar and singing and yes, Frisbee with the dog.

Not fool’s gold, it turns out, but the real thing.

Meanwhile, at Yale, administrators struggle to find a room large enough for what has become known as “the happiness class.” It’s the largest class in Yale’s 300-year history.

“So many students have told (Professor Santos) the class changed their lives,” the Post story said.

“If you’re really grateful, show me that,” she told them. “Change the culture.”

The story ended with a scene from the last class of the semester.

“Let’s do this!” Santos said.

“Good Life (by Kanye West) began blasting into Woolsey Hall, and more than a thousand Yalies stood up, some laughing, some crying, all applauding. Finals were happening, papers were due, internships and jobs were imminent. Later, they would pour out into the sunshine, hurrying to other classes or exams or the library, and Santos would hug her husband and promise him a date night. But for now students stood and clapped and clapped and clapped, beaming, drowning out even Kanye with their standing ovation. As if they had nothing but time.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Fred Rogers, Richard Rohr And The Truth About Anger

This passage from the great Catholic writer Richard Rohr really struck me when I read it a few days ago:

“Anger is good and very necessary to protect the appropriate boundaries of self and others. I would much sooner live with a person who is free to get fully angry, and also free to move beyond that same anger, than with a negative person who is hard-wired with resentments and pre-existing judgments. Their anger is so well hidden and denied — even from themselves — that it never comes up for the fresh air of love, conversation, and needed forgiveness.”

Richard Rohr.
Richard Rohr.

Rohr’s words reminded me of the day many years ago when a good friend said this to me: “There is a lot of anger in you.” She said it kindly, as an observation not an accusation, but I was stunned nonetheless.

From the time of my boyhood, my persona of choice was the “good guy.” I tried to wrest security and satisfaction from life by pleasing others, often at the expense of myself, and anger just did not fit that schtick. So I repressed my rage and turned my anger in on myself. The result was a deep and chronic depression that by early adulthood threatened to consume me.

I have had a lot of company in this regard. In our recent book on grief, Dr. Patrick O’Malley and I write about the “culture of positivity,” defined by one psychologist as “the widespread social practice of eliminating any attitude and utterance that doesn’t have an uplifting effect on one’s mood and those around them.

“The pressure to think positive pervades our everyday language and practices. It’s the reflexive response, ‘Put on a happy face,’ if we are not smiling. ‘Think cheerful thoughts and good things will happen.’ We feel pressure to display a pleasant countenance even if it is insincere. And we often feel guilty if we’re not quite able to don that cloak. The underlying belief, it seems, is that hurt and discontent can be done away with simply by acting as though it isn’t there.”

Which is crap, of course. But that cultural ethos made it safer for me to turn my anger inward toward my own destruction than acknowledge it as a normal and yes, necessary, part of my humanity.

Fred Rogers and Tim Madigan.
Fred Rogers and Tim Madigan.

Fred Rogers was among those who led me toward truth and healing. I believe one of the most profoundly helpful things Mister Rogers ever said was this:

“There’s no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ when it comes to having feelings. (All feelings, anger, sadness, rage.) They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.”

Fred’s words about his own anger were an important part of our first face-to-face conversation. That day in October 1995, sitting in his small office in Pittsburgh, he began to share about his long-time friend, Jim Stumbaugh, who had died of cancer a few weeks before. Fred said he was angry at the disease.

“With grief there is, inevitably, some times of anger and, you know, God can take our anger,” Fred said. “I think God respects the fact that we would share a whole gamut of feelings. I’m a real person. I think kids understand that.

“I’ve told the children there are many things you can do with your feelings that don’t hurt yourself or anyone else, particularly the so called ‘negative’ feelings, anger, sadness and rage. If there is one service I feel television could offer in this world, it would be to give as many examples as possible of people expressing their anger in healthy ways. We see just the opposite on television.”

Hence the title of one of Fred’s most important songs.

“What do you do with the mad you feel (when you feel so mad you can bite?)”

Pound on dough or clay, the song suggests, or organize a game of tag.

I’m a little old for tag, (or maybe I’m not). But I have long come to accept that on that day long ago, my friend was right about my anger, however deeply buried it might have been at the time. The biggest part of my journey of healing over the decades has been first acknowledging, then embracing my anger and rage. Now, instead of turning that dark energy inward, I pour it out in journals, share it with trusted others and try to express it in ways that doesn’t hurt others, though I’m not always successful in that regard.

Some days, during my quiet time in the morning, I simply try to tune into a small voice inside me that says, “You’re really angry today, you’re really hurting.” No judgment there, just self-compassion. Or some days my prayer is simply this, “God, I’m really, really angry.”

And I agree with Fred. God can take it.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Simple Secret To Supporting A Grieving Person: Human Presence

At a speaking engagement of mine a few months back, a woman in the audience said something that I will never forget. She had lost her spouse more than a year before and continued to grieve deeply. But something in her suffering had shifted, she said.

“I used to see grief as an enemy,” she said. “After reading your book, I see grief as a companion.”

She referred to “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss,” which I co-authored with Fort Worth, Texas, grief therapist Patrick O’Malley. In it we tried to normalize grief, to assure readers that bereavement does not conform to steps or stages, that every person’s grief is unique, that grief is not a pathology, a mental illness or a sign of weakness. Ultimately it is an expression of love, how we often redefine a relationship with the person we have lost. The intensity and duration of grief, Patrick tells readers based on his long personal and professional experience, is commensurate with the depth of love for the person now gone.

But though tried to provide comfort and assurance to those who grieve, the book also seeks to educate those who seek to support the bereaved. The short answer is this: To truly support a grieving person, you must willingly enter into his or her pain.

We quote the great Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen:

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

“This is a tall order if there ever was one,” Patrick says in our book. “How, exactly, do you show true compassion for a grieving person? Here are a few ideas.

“Show up at the house, visitation or funeral; express simple words of sorrow; and then let the mourning person dictate what happens next. She may open her arms for a hug, or she may clearly want to keep people at a distance. He may be calm or agitated. She may be jovial or weeping. He may want to talk about his loss or about baseball. She may be angry or grateful. Be with them wherever they are.

“I define intimacy as truly knowing another person and being known. Being with a person in grief is a unique, one-way intimacy. You are there to know the grieving person but not to make him or her feel better. Don’t try to move the bereaved from one emotional place to another to make yourself comfortable. Be with them without an agenda. You may be more comfortable with a person’s anger than with their silence, or you may rather talk about sports than the accident — but this isn’t about you.

“Listen with your eyes and respond with nods that convey, “I get it.”

It is indeed a tall order, but a simple one. This is another way of putting it: Just be present. Fred Rogers demonstrated every day of his life the enormous power of pure human presence — humanity without expectation, judgement or agenda —even in the most difficult of times, particularly in the most difficult of times.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Barbara Bush And The Aspiration To Goodness

My wife and I spent a healing hour watching the news Tuesday night. When was the last time anyone could say that?

The topic, of course, was the passing of former First Lady Barbara Bush at age 92. As the tributes poured in, how nice it was to be reminded that her human greatness did not derive from her role as matriarch of a political dynasty. Instead it was her commitment to family and friends, her wisdom, humor, strength, kindness and optimism through decades of triumph and tragedy. It was how she embodied the conviction that honor and service are the noblest of things.

Fred Rogers said, and I think it’s true, that it’s hard to make goodness attractive. But that was certainly never a problem for him, and never for Mrs. Bush. And the recent and ongoing celebration of Fred’s greatness, and the tributes to Barbara Bush are all the more affecting because of the bilious, vulgar, and spiritually corrosive nature of current times.

In my days as a high school hockey coach, I tried to impress upon my players the importance of sportsmanship, integrity, decency and kindness — not as abstract ideals but as things essential to success, peace and true happiness in life. I have often thought of coaches today, teachers and parents of young children who face terrible headwinds as they try to instill those values.

Not that any of us are perfect. Far from it. Every day I fall short of the person I hope to be. But that’s not the point. The point is that we try our best to be good to one another. However often we fail, it is the aspiration toward our higher natures and better angels that I believe is the highest calling in life.

Barbara Bush reminded us of that in her life, and now in her death. For that I am grateful.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Three Hours And Thirty-Two Minutes

I was the new kid in September 1970, attending public school for the first time after years of being taught by Catholic nuns. I walked toward the front door on that first day, passing clusters of unfamiliar junior high students gathered in the morning sun, waiting for the first bell. I imagined whispers about this scrawny, shy newcomer.

Joe Rood.
Joe Rood.

Then one of them stepped out to greet me. My town in Minnesota was a small place, so Joel Rood and I sort of knew each other from Little League, but only sort of. I never would have guessed that he would be the one to extend his hand, tell me he was glad I was there and invite me to join in with his friends.

And this wasn’t just anybody. Joel was the top student in our class, the star athlete. He was a big deal, on other words. If he had my back …The rest of that day, that year, was pretty much a breeze after that.

When recalling that day, I’m reminded of a story that Fred Rogers told me in 1995. The icon of children’s television had been a shy, chubby, musical teenager  — an easy target for bullies — until Jim Stumbaugh, another top student and star athlete, made it known that he thought this Rogers kid was OK.

“Little did I know that that would be the beginning of a lifelong friendship,” Fred said in a speech a year later. “There he was, probably the best-known, smartest, most active person in our class, and he welcomed me day after day.”

Fred called it a “liberating friendship,” one so pivotal to his later success in life “because I had someone who believed in me and wasn’t afraid to say so.”

… and Tim Madigan, in 1976.
… and Tim Madigan, in 1976.

Jim had died of cancer a few weeks before Fred and I met in 1995. Fred spoke at length of his grief.

“You hate to lose such a spirit,” he said.

Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that Joel Rood had the same impact on my life. Then again, maybe it isn’t. And a few weeks ago, I, too, thought I was about lose a person so foundational to my life and being.

– – –

Like Jim and Fred, my friendship with Joel endured across decades, though our paths diverged sharply after college. He graduated from Princeton and a career in engineering and business took Joel, his wife, Leslye, and their two children around the world. I attended the University of North Dakota and began a career as a writer, eventually landing at a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas.

Joel turned 60 late last year, a few weeks before me. He and his family had settled in North Carolina, where he was scheduled to have surgery March 27 to repair a faulty heart valve, a serious procedure but not inherently life-threatening.

At 10:25 that morning, Leslye told me in a text that the surgery had gone very well. Her next message came four hours later.

“Terrible news,” it said. “Internal bleeding won’t stop.”

Joel had been rushed back into surgery. Leslye began to cry when I called. She, son, Tim, and daughter, Anneke, had begun a desperate vigil, one that I joined from Texas.

I tried to work, but memories kept intruding. I remembered all the hours Joel and I spent as high school kids, driving country roads at night, talking about girls and sports and the larger world that might be waiting beyond rural Minnesota.

I remembered the baseball games, particularly the final loss on a muggy night in the summer of 1980. Joel and I lingered together in the dugout that night long after the rest of our teammates had dispersed because we knew that the game marked the end of a shared childhood. We would both graduate from college in a few months. There would be no more hometown summers.

Leslye, Joel, Tim and Anneke.
Leslye, Joel, Tim and Anneke.

But mostly I thought of the sunny morning nearly 50 years before, when Joel welcomed a scared new kid to the eighth grade. Strange as it seems to say now, I hadn’t thought of that day for decades. It began to seem less and less likely that I would have the chance to tell Joel how much his kindness and friendship meant.

Five o’clock passed.

Leslye’s text finally came at 5:37. That was three hours and thirty-two minutes after her first dire message.

“They have found the problem and they have fixed that,” it said. “He will be out of surgery soon.”

I was numb with relief, then deeply grateful, but for more than just the obvious. I was reminded again of how Fred Rogers began most speeches. No one becomes who they are alone, he would say, asking his audience to take a few seconds and think of those who “loved you into being.”

That’s what I did on those three hours and thirty-two minutes when Joel was fighting for his life. As harrowing as those minutes were, I am so incredibly glad for the reminder of Joel and what his act of kindness and inclusion had meant.

I talked to him on the phone a few days after his surgery and he sounded great. I started to tell him what I thought about during those terrible hours but struggled to get the words out.

“I know,” Joel said simply. “I know.”

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Right Time For Mister Rogers

Five years ago came the news that my memoir, “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers,” was going to be a major motion picture. Two young screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, had developed a beautiful script. The directors of the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” had signed on. There was significant buzz in Hollywood and in the Madigan household. Then, for reasons I can’t discuss, the project collapsed. Ugh!

Recently, the world learned that there will be a “Mister Rogers” movie after all, with Tom Hanks in the role of Fred. Noah and Micah have developed another script, this one based on Fred’s friendship with writer Tom Junod of Esquire magazine.

After the news broke, many of you have kindly expressed your disappointment that this movie will not be based on “I’m Proud of You.” And yes, I have recently have had occasion to wonder about what might been. But those thoughts have been fleeting, and my own disappointment has been just a tinge.

Here’s why:

I don’t spend a lot of time these days getting het up about things that I can’t control.

Noah and Micah are two beautiful guys who have devoted so much of their professional lives to telling a story that appropriately venerates our beloved secular saint. No one deserves success more than those two.

Tom Junod is also a very nice man and one of the country’s finest writers. His Esquire profile of Fred is iconic. If you haven’t already, take the time to read it at this link. http://www.esquire.com/…/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

Fred Rogers and Tim Madigan.
Fred Rogers and Tim Madigan.

But most importantly, our world needs the example of Fred Rogers now more than ever. This thought occurred to me just today. Five years ago wasn’t the right time for Fred to make it to the big screen. Now is the time, a unique moment in human history when all of us need to become reacquainted with this embodiment of presence, kindness, compassion, civility, love and nonjudgement. We thirst today to be reminded of what is most true about the human spirit.

I do hope that in researching this most challenging role, Tom Hanks finds his way to IPOY. I think he will find it enlightening and useful. But whether he does or does not, I am encouraged, Hanks has been cast in the part. So far as I can tell, he is one of the few actors of our age with the heart and soul to play Fred Rogers.

Godspeed everyone.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Sacred Night In An Amazing Place

Few things gave Fred Rogers more pleasure than making connections between people. Somewhere on the other side of the thin veil that separates this life from what comes after it, (Fred’s words) he is very happy at the connections I have made at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas.

John McKellar
John McKellar

A few years ago, I heard that the memoir of my friendship with Fred had been mentioned from the pulpit at White’s Chapel, which was no small thing — the church is one of the largest in North Texas. I sent a note of thanks to Dr. John McKellar, the co-pastor, and asked if we could meet someday. John quickly agreed.

I was very curious about John, who in the 1990s had been sent by his denomination to White’s Chapel to essential shut down what was then a failing church. Instead, he turned it into one of our area’s most dynamic forces for good, a source of comfort and inspiration to its members in and around the affluent community of Southlake, and to suffering and impoverished people locally and around the world.

What sort of person could inspire such a transformation? A deeply humble one, it turns out. I sat down with John in his office one day last year for our first meeting, and within five minutes, it was like we had removed our skins and it was just two hearts talking. He was loath to accept any credit for White’s Chapel. Fred would have been in awe.

Todd Renner
Todd Renner

That day was the beginning of a deep friendship, which led to an evening at White’s Chapel a few weeks ago, when John had invited me to tell the story of my friendship with Fred. John couldn’t be there himself because of a recent surgery, but I luxuriated in the kindness and spirit of his co-pastor, Dr. Todd Renner, and longtime church worker Tracy Christensen, who attended to my every need.

Hundreds attended the traditional, Wednesday night, chicken dinner, then made their way into the beautiful sanctuary for my talk, which was live-streamed around the nation. (My mom in St. Paul liked that.) My wife, Catherine, was there, and from the altar, I could celebrate her healing after a very difficult year. Afterward, I was surprised to meet a close relative of Fred, who I look forward to speaking with again soon.

I have many memories from my travels with this story over the years, none more cherished than those from that recent night. I’m delighted to be able to share excerpts in the video below. Hope you enjoy.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — The Eyes of Fred Rogers

This portrait of Fred Rogers hangs at the top of the stairs entering our living room, which means I see it, and make eye contact with Fred, many times each day. Having Fred hanging there changes the molecules in the air of the place where we live.

One of my most cherished possessions.
One of my most cherished possessions.

The artist who created it is another reason why that picture is one of my most cherished possessions. Bob Stuth-Wade is one of the Southwest’s most accomplished painters — and a man who rivals Fred himself in terms of human goodness. Bob and I met in 2014, when I was writing about his son, singer-songwriter Luke Wade, who was then electrifying American audiences on television’s “The Voice.” Fred came up in my first conversation with Bob, and we immediately agreed that the late icon of children’s television was a secular saint.

A year later, at a Thai restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, with wife, Wanda, and sons Luke and David, Bob unveiled his gift. For the first time, I saw Fred looking back at me from the canvas. Something about his eyes.

Which caused me recently wonder — how do you paint the eyes of Fred Rogers? I called Bob to find out.

* * * *

It turns out that Fred was not the first. For years, part of Bob’s spiritual practice (in addition to two hours of daily meditation and tai chi) was something he called “paint a saint.” He used his brush to try and capture the essence of human greatness on canvas. He painted Jesus and St. Therese of Lisieux, The Little Flower. He painted Gandhi and the Indian sage Ramana Maharsi. He sketched Lincoln.

Three admirers of Fred Rogers, Tim, Luke and Bob (from left).
Three admirers of Fred Rogers, Tim, Luke and Bob (from left).

“On the internet, I would look up saints and enlightened people, and go through the images until something resonated with me, and touched my heart,” Bob said. “It’s that look in their eyes, something so subtle. It’s like they see how things really are. They “are” the love that the world is, and when I look at them, I feel they are seeing me as that same love. That’s the reason I painted them. That spark of life is what I was looking for.

“As social animals, we need eye contact. That’s what kids miss a lot. When I look into the eyes of a saint or Fred Rogers, he’s seeing me and seeing me all the way through to the best of me. After ‘I see you,’ it’s ‘I see I.’ I see myself as I really am because they see me as I really am. From ‘I see you’ to ‘I see I.’”

* * * *

As I said, I met Luke in 2014. We talked about his star turn on “The Voice,” but I also found him to be a very thoughtful and soulful young man, and another admirer of Fred Rogers. I told Luke that I had known Fred well, and written a book about our friendship. A short time later, Luke shared our conversation with his dad.

Bob and wife, Wanda, with a certain book.
Bob and wife, Wanda, with a certain book.

“So, I was doing this practice, paint a saint,” Bob said. “One day, Luke and I were talking and he said, ‘There is a guy out there, Tim Madigan. You’re going to have a bromance when you meet him.’ By then, Luke had heard me say that I thought Fred Rogers was an American saint. This was before I knew anything about you or your book. Then we met, and I really liked you, and I was already doing that practice so I thought, ‘I’m going to do Fred Rogers.’”

But Fred was not an easy subject, as saints go.

“I was frustrated because he has those sort of simple, all American features,” Bob said. “It’s not like he’s a gnarled old guru. And in most of the pictures I found of Fred, there wasn’t much drama in the light. He was a normal, regular guy with the normal haircut and the sweater. It was difficult.”

He worked on the portrait in fits and starts, turning the painting toward the wall, setting it aside for several months at a time.

“Finally, the last time I worked on it, I just dove in,” Bob said.

In the end, of course, it was about the eyes.

“Technically, there are all sorts of the things about the eyes that I understand, about the way light goes through them and comes out the other side of the iris,” Bob said. “How the wetness of the eyes creates a little highlight. The way the skin folds around the eyes. I understand a lot of that pretty thoroughly.”

Not that it would help Bob finish Fred’s portrait.

“Capturing the subtlety of that expression is beyond conscious control,” he said. “I have to open my heart by looking at that person, looking into those eyes, really try to become that, feel that presence of the person I’m painting. It’s a letting go, rather than a calculated thing.”

So as he studied photographs, Bob opened his heart to the eyes of Mister Rogers. Then came that sacred moment in his studio, after a few final dabs of his brush.

“I felt him looking back at me,” Bob said.

Finally. I see you. I see I.