It recently dawned on me that it was 20 years ago, about this time of year, when the phone rang at my desk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and I heard that voice at the other end of the line.
“Hello. This is Fred Rogers, calling from Pittsburgh.”
And so it was. We talked that day about violence on television and how it affected children. I forget the context, but late in a long conversation, Fred said to me, “Do you know the most important thing in my life right now?”
We just met Mister Rogers. I could have no idea.
“Speaking with Tim Madigan on the telephone,” which was my first glimpse into the nature of true human greatness.
Then came my trip to Pittsburgh to spend four days with him — several long interviews and a chance to watch him film an episode of the Neighborhood. His invitation to friendship. Walking with Fred through some very dark times in my life. And finally asking him that question: “Will you be proud of me?”
A few of you know how he responded, and “Anything mentionable is manageable,” and “What is most personal is most universal,” and “Your trust confirms my trustworthiness,” and, this, at my darkest time of all, “Please know that I will never forsake you.”
And on and on.
It has been my sacred privilege and mission in the years since to share the story of our friendship. The message is essentially this. Fred understood that life is hard, that there is so much messy stuff we all endure — sadness, shame, fear, insecurity, anger, loneliness — but we nonetheless work so hard to conceal these “essential invisibles” from each other. No need, Fred said. We are all in this together.
Most recently, my travels with this message took me to two junior high schools in Tampa, Fla. At Liberty Middle School, 1,200 six-, seventh- and eighth-graders piled noisily into the gym and listened as I laid bare my own soul and I described how Fred responded when I did with him.
“I’m deeply touched that you shared so much of yourself with me, and look forward to hearing all that you would care to share in the future,” Fred had said.
That recent morning at Liberty, I’ll never forget the girl sitting on my right. She had sung the national anthem with the show choir at the beginning of the program. She listened with her eyes and nodded knowingly at almost everything I said.
I wanted to speak to her afterward, to learn more about the source of her obvious wisdom, but time was short and the best I could do was tell her how much her presence meant to me. She clearly understood.
At Monroe Middle School that afternoon, 600 raucous kids roared into the gym, but two in particular caught my eye. One was a waiflike little girl who was weeping, deeply distraught about something as she walked in with the wave of students. Another girl walked next to her, a consoling arm around the weeping girl’s shoulder. That scene summarized everything I was there to say.
The two girls sat down on the front row of bleachers, and I went over to say hello. The weeping girl was Jahnaye, a sixth-grader. I deeply regret not getting the name of her friend.
“I don’t know why you’re sad, but whatever the reason, it’s OK,” I told Jahnaye. “In fact, I’m a little sad, too.”
She looked up at me and nodded.
Then, to the throng of kids, I told the story of my friendship with Fred. Toward the end of my talk I said this.
“I have a confession to make. I’m a mess.”
Laughter and cheers.
“But guess what. You are all a mess, too.”
“There’s another word for mess, and that’s human.”
“And the good news is that we are all in this together. We don’t have to be messes alone.”
Those beautiful kids blew the roof off the place.
And on the front row, I saw Jahnaye smile.