By now you’ve probably heard that Saturday’s synagogue slaughter took place in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, where Fred Rogers lived and worshipped himself. His spirit is now often invoked as the heartbroken city struggles to heal.
The grim news for me brought back a much different memory of that place, from another autumn morning 23 years ago. I had been in Pittsburgh to spend four days with Fred, researching my newspaper profile of the great man. We had several long and remarkable interviews and I was invited to watch him film his program.
What I thought was my last interview took place Saturday morning, before I was to return to Texas the following afternoon. But that Saturday afternoon, the telephone rang in my hotel room and when I answered it that familiar voice on the other end of the line. Fred asked if I would like to join him for services at the Squirrel Hill Presbyterian church where he was a member.
That was how, on a rainy Sunday morning, I found myself seated next to Mister Rogers in a front pew of his church, singing hymns and participating in the litany. Then the minister came to the part of the service where he asked his congregation to share their joys and concerns. There was mention of illnesses and new babies and new jobs.
The older woman was the last person to speak, standing at the rear of the church. She launched into a long, disjointed and frankly nonsensical diatribe against war. You could sense the rising mortification in the sanctuary as she went on and on, getting angrier and angrier. You could almost hear the poor minister searching for tactful words that might get her to stop.
Finally, she did, and the congregation seemed to exhale as one. One exception was the man sitting next to me.
“That poor dear,” Fred whispered. “Don’t you know that at some point in that woman’s life, she’s suffered terribly because of war.”
Then at the end of the service, as the woman was standing alone, it was Fred and Fred alone who went up to her, took her into his arms, and spent 10 minutes listening to whatever it was about war that had caused her such pain.
Whether it made sense or not. To Fred Rogers, the only thing that mattered was that it made sense to her.
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