It was a sunny August morning, and my husband, son and I were standing inside a giant dome-like structure in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. What were we waiting for? Why a giant stuffed tiger dressed in a red zip-up sweater, of course! You may have heard of him. His name is Daniel Tiger, and we watched him and his fellow costumed character Katarina perform an adorable stage show at Storyland.
After the performance, children could line up to take photos with the characters. As we waited in the line, an older man – looking like he would feel more at home at a biker bar than a children’s theme park – came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder, as my husband and son continued getting pictures taken with Daniel and friends.
“I just wanted to say thank you for being such great parents,” the man said, smiling and then walking away.
I turned back and looked at JB, who was now playing with and gazing in awe at Daniel Tiger. Tears started flowing down my cheeks, and I smiled. This was just another moment of reassurance made possible by Fred Rogers.
Like most children in the 80s, I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood every day. I learned how people make crayons, music can express feelings, and it’s okay to make mistakes. (I genuinely believe the episode where he shows the book with a typo in it instilled in me my love for proofreading!)
I moved to Pittsburgh in 2010, and was dreading the transition. Pittsburgh had only four things going for it in my mind: My fiancé, my grad school, the Penguins, and Mister Rogers. (Technically he was from a suburb, Latrobe, but as an adult he relocated to Pittsburgh.)
Living in Pittsburgh, it seemed everyone had some connection to Mister Rogers. I loved hearing the stories, each reiterating how humble and generous and compassionate he and his wife really were.
While in grad school, I attended a citywide career fair for students looking at careers in journalism or communications. Imagine my surprise to find one of the speakers was the actor who played Mr. McFeely, David Newell. He was there to discuss careers in public television, obviously, but was also meeting with fans. I told him how I had reservations about moving from New England to Pittsburgh, but knew it couldn’t be that bad if Mister Rogers lived here. He spoke to me for several minutes reassuring me that everyone gets homesick, and I would make this city feel like home soon. I’ll always be grateful for that kindness.
Mister Rogers’s effect on my parenting life
The first song I ever sang to JB at the hospital when he was born was “It’s a Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood”. I still sing him that song, along with “You Are Special”, “It’s You I Like”, and my all-time favorite “When Your Heart Has Butterflies Inside It”. We watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – and now Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood – as a family, and my husband and I sometimes point out places we’ve visited, or our favorite locations in the city. “There’s the Trader Joe’s Mommy always visited on her way home from work!” “That’s Daddy’s barber!”
When JB returned to school full time last fall, I was a nervous wreck. Would he catch COVID? Was I protecting him enough? One particularly stressful day, as my head filled with worries on the drive to school, a song started playing from the “JB playlist” we were listening to in the car:
Be brave and then be strong
Be brave. You’ll not go wrong if you are right
Keep your chin up tight
And be brave and then be strong
Yup, out of all the songs on my phone, at that moment that specific Mister Rogers song played. Sure, it could be a coincidence. After all, JB’s playlist is mostly Mister Rogers and Raffi songs (with some Taylor Swift for good measure). But coincidence or fate or whatever, all I know is that song was exactly what I wanted to hear in that moment of self-doubt.
This summer has been extremely difficult for me emotionally. Our family’s bout with COVID, JB starting kindergarten, and some other changes have really taken their toll on my spirits. So last month, when I saw JB happily interact with these characters based on Mister Rogers’s work, and then heard someone telling me I was doing a good job? Well, I really needed that. And I think somehow, somewhere, Mister Rogers knew that, too. All I had to do was look for the helpers.
Favorite books about Mister Rogers
I’ve acquired quite the collection of Mister Rogers-related books over the years. Here are some of my favorites:
- The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (A note: This book is so wonderful that I own both the hardcover version and the audiobook, narrated by the incomparable LeVar Burton!)
- I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan
- The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The Poetry of Mister Rogers
- Radical Kindness: The Life-Changing Power of Giving and Receiving and Preschool Clues: Raising Smart, Inspired, and Engaged Kids in a Screen-Filled World (Both books are by Angela C. Santomero, who studied under Fred Rogers and has carried on much of his work since his death. His lessons heavily influence both books.)
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(Photo by author)