TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — What Would Fred Rogers Say Today?

The memoir of my friendship with Fred Rogers, “I’m Proud of You,” was first published in 2006, followed by a second edition paperback in 2012. It recently dawned on me that was a full decade ago. Yet I continue to hear regularly from people who have found the book and found deep meaning in it. That is because Fred Rogers is a historic figure and the message of his life is timeless.

Mary Jacobsen, host of “The Morning Show” in Newburyport, Mass., is one new reader of “I’m Proud of You.” She and I had a lovely conversation about Fred on her show a few weeks ago. Mary asked what a lot of people are asking now. What would Fred Rogers say today?

Below is a transcript of our visit, edited for length and clarity.

MARY JACOBSEN: Hello, everyone, welcome to the “Morning Show.” I’m your host, Mary Jacobsen. I’m delighted to welcome back today’s guest, journalist and author Tim Madigan. He visited the show earlier this year to talk about his critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling book, “The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921,” which was featured in this year’s Newburyport Literary Festival. During that visit, I learned about Tim’s close friendship with Fred Rogers, and the memoir he wrote about his friendship titled, “I’m Proud of You.”

I’m a great admirer of Mister Rogers, as I know so many millions are, and I’ve often wished that he was around to give us the benefit of his wisdom in this deeply unsettling time. Today we get to do the next best thing to talking to Mister Rogers. We get to talk to one of Fred Rogers’ friends. So Tim, welcome. And thank you for taking time to come on The Morning Show.

TIM MADIGAN: I’m glad to do it, Mary. It’s good to see you again. And I totally agree. I think that a lot of us wish that he was still around to do what Mister Rogers does, to comfort. It is a very unsettling time. He would invite us to go deeper into our own humanity to try and cope with what’s going on.

MARY: That was the impact he had on people of all ages. I hope that we could start by you just telling us about how your friendship with Fred Rogers began, and how it grew and deepened for both of you over time.

TIM: Sure. It was the fall of 1995. I worked at a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas. My assignment was to write a story about violence on television and how it affects children. A colleague of mine suggested that I interview Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers and I made the necessary arrangements. One day the phone rang at my desk and it was Bob Keeshan, Captain Kangaroo, on the line. I was just beside myself because I was a Captain Kangaroo kid. So we talked. He was a nice man, too.

Then a few minutes later, the phone rang again and there was that voice at the other new line familiar to so many of us. “Well hello, Tim. This is Fred Rogers calling from Pittsburgh.”

We ended up having a long conversation that day about violence on television and his thoughts about television generally. It was very meaningful. The thing that I most remember about that talk was that, toward the end of it, he said, “Tim, do you know what the most important thing in my life is right now? It’s talking to Mr. Tim Madigan on the telephone.” I’ve always said that little exchange spoke to the foundation of his human greatness. He had this unique ability to be present to people. He was totally present to whoever he was with and present to life.

That common conversation seemed to go well enough that I was invited to Pittsburgh, to profile Fred himself. I flew up (to Pittsburgh) later that fall, and spent four days with him, had several long interviews with him. I watched him film a program. It was an otherworldly experience. At the end of it, I went to church with him. He walked me to my car, gave me a hug and said, “I’m really glad to be your friend.”

But there’s a real risk in being a friend of Fred Rogers. He wanted to know about what he called your essential invisibles. He wasn’t particularly interested in talking about superficial stuff. He wanted to know what it was about you that didn’t meet the eye. He wanted to know the truth of your life and it seemed like the messier the better, the more painful the better. Another one of his kind of foundational beliefs was — this actually came from his friend, the Catholic writer Henry Nouwen — was “what is most personal is most universal.” And what is most personal? It’s the things we try to conceal from one another — our pain, our anger, our sadness our depression, our fear.

But Fred understood that those things are actually what we have most in common with other people. That kind of existential suffering is something that’s common to almost all humans, but we don’t know that. We somehow think we suffer from terminal uniqueness.

So after about six months, I wrote him a very different kind of letter. I said, “Fred, I’m really glad to be your friend, but if we’re going to be friends, I think you’d be you’d be the first to agree that you need to know the truth of my life.” I told him about years really deep depression, life-threatening depression and pathologically low self-esteem and struggles in almost every area of my life. Then I said, “At the heart of all this, Fred, is this kind of haunting notion that all my life I’ve been trying to get my father to be proud of me. And for whatever reason, I’ve never really felt like I’ve succeeded.” So I said in this letter, “Fred, I have a question to ask you. Would you be proud of me?” It seems bizarre to me even now, but I folded it up, licked a stamp and mailed it away.

On July 1, 1996, came his reply that said, “Dear Tim. The answer to your question is YES, a resounding YES. I am proud of you. I will be proud of you. I have been proud of you since first we met.” He said, “I’m deeply touched, that you would care to share so much of yourself with me and look forward to hearing all that you care to share in the future.”

Another time Fred told me “your trust confirms my trustworthiness.” A larger message is that we all have those people (like a Fred Rogers) in our lives. When you can take off your mask and confide in that person, you’re paying that person one of the highest compliments one can pay to another, which is to say, “I trust you.”

MARY: It’s a beautiful story, Tim. It communicates the essence of what was uniquely loving and healing about Fred Rogers. And thank you for writing the book, by the way, because I feel like you get a kind of a contact healing from the many beautiful stories that you tell. And thank you for sharing it with us on this show.

One of the things that was very clear about Fred Rogers — he was clearly a healing presence for children, and for adults, as you’ve just been narrating. He understood the nature of human hearts and human wounds and the wounds that we carry. We all have our broken places. And children have them, too, which adults often refuse to acknowledge, deny, or simply overlook. That’s why often we carry them forward into adulthood.

But I don’t think someone comes by that deep kind of understanding that Fred Rogers had without experiencing some woundedness in their own life. And I know you address that in your book. I think it’s helpful to understand some of the brokenness that Fred Rogers encountered and had to overcome, that helped him develop what I would describe as the vast power of his compassion.

TIM: That’s a very good point. Henry Nouwen has written about this concept of a wounded healer. Fred really loved that and understood it. Fred Rogers was truly one of our civilization’s great human beings, a historical figure. He died young, unfortunately, at 74. And I thought that he and I would have more of a chance to explore that, the origins of that greatness.

I think part of it was innate. I think part of it was that he was born that way. But the other part of it … When he was a young boy he was overweight. He was shy and musical. He was a target for bullies. He told the story in one of his own books that as he was walking home one day, a group of bullies were following saying, “Hey, Fat Freddy, we’re going to get you Fat Freddy.” He confided in the adults in his life and their response was, “Just try to ignore them and they’ll leave you alone.” Fred had the insight, even as a junior high school kid, that just wasn’t right. It was deeply hurtful to him and that hurt needed to be honored and expressed in some way that was healthy. He expressed it often through his fingers on the keys of a piano. From that time, he started looking for other people who, as he called them, were poor in spirit, started looking for their essential invisibles even though he probably didn’t call it that at the time. He came to terms with that suffering, that pain, early in his life. He really devoted himself to try and explore that and to act as a healer.

He never referred to his audience in the plural. It was always, “neighbor.” His message was, “I know, it’s hard to be 3 years old. I know it’s hard to be 4 or 5 or 64. It’s hard to be human. But for the next half hour, there’s going to be one adult who’s going to be here for you and for you alone.” The stories that I’ve heard over the years about the power of that are just remarkable. Too many kids would tell him, or too many adults who could remembered their childhoods would tell him, “You were my only safe place.”

I think the great curse of humanity now is not that we endure this existential suffering. It’s that we endure it alone, or we judge ourselves for feeling bad. It’s just part of being human. A big part of Fred’s life was to try to encourage people to accept those things and not be ashamed of them, reach out to people and realize that pain is not a character defect.

MARY: Pain is not a character defect. That’s profound.

He was an ordained minister, but he appeared to me to be somebody whose faith was about dogma or doctrine of any kind because that separates people. And Mister Rogers is all about uniting people. It seemed as though his faith was something that drew him closer to people, especially the depths and the pain in people. So I was hoping you could say a little bit more about the role that religion played in in Fred Rogers’ life and how he made this faith a part of his relationship with you. And with everyone really.

TIM: There’s a very good book written by my friend, Amy Hollingsworth, called “The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers,” where she explores that question quite deeply. I would highly recommend it to everyone who’s listening.

So much of our relationship was imbued with a spiritual kind of undertone. A lot of our talks were talks about spirituality and God. He was a Presbyterian minister, and that was foundational to him. But he was also very ecumenical. He had probably the most beautiful definition of the transcendent, of God, that I’ve ever heard. He said, “There’s a loving mystery at the heart of the universe, that just yearns to be expressed.” I think that’s a profound statement in so many ways. But one of the words that really speaks to me is “mystery.”

That imbued everything he did. He never proselytized. He never evangelized. The way he lived his life was a much more powerful message than any words, or direct attempts to convince people about anything spiritual.

MARY: That’s beautifully put. It’s so much fun to talk to you about Fred Rogers. It feels like you do bring him to life. As we bring this interview to a close, there was one kind of overarching question that I wanted to ask you. And it’s a big one. After 9/11, people encouraged Fred Rogers to offer counsel and he famously did. He quoted his mother saying, “Always look for the helpers because they’ll always be there.” And he also spoke about Jewish concept of tikkun olam, that we must all become healers of the world. So here’s my question, Tim. What do you think he would say to people today? We’re in pretty troubled times. People are divided. They are fearful of losing certain things we thought were fundamental to America. What words of wisdom do you think he might call from his inner love and mystery to share with us and help us get through in these troubled times?

TIM: That’s the question, isn’t it? One of the things I learned from him is how to be a much better friend to myself. We’re not terribly good at that. I’ve learned to have much more compassion for myself. I think maybe he would start there by saying, “This has been a very difficult time. And I think that you need to appreciate how difficult it’s been, and you need to have compassion for yourself, and the pain you might be experiencing as a result of whatever the circumstances are in your life.” I think that’s the starting point. I think that is a big starting point, actually.

Another thing about him, when things would be done to him, he would encounter meanness or inappropriate behavior, he would never judge someone in terms of calling them bad. He would try to understand what it was about that person’s life, the suffering that would produce that kind of behavior. So try to understand your neighbor. Try to understand that person’s essential invisibles, even if it was someone you disagreed with.

He believed that we share a common humanity and that common humanity can be obscured in any number of ways. But we need to try to find that and one way is to learn each other’s stories, to learn the stories without judgment, to listen, to be present. Ultimately he believed as Gandhi believed and as Martin Luther King Jr. believed that radical compassion is the ultimate way that world will heal. It’s just an educated guess. I think that would be a version of what his message would be today.

To purchase any of Tim’s books, including “The Burning, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921”; “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers,” “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Story of Loss” (with grief therapist Patrick O’Malley); and “Extra Innings: Fred’s Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team,” visit my Amazon page at this link.

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