I don't know why it's so difficult to admit, but I really like Mister Rogers.
I was at my sister's house this past Christmas, sharing the holiday with her, my brother-in-law and their four children: three boys and a girl all under 10 years old. We were sitting around the living room, visiting, when Mister Rogers' Neighborhood popped up on the television as one of the boys flipped the channels.
"Oh, oh, Mister Rogers!," squeaked Caleb, who is seven.
"Hey, he's not doing the show anymore," said Andrew, my eldest nephew.
"Really?" I said, wondering how I had missed that news. Fred Rogers had announced back in November that this year would be last for production of new Neighborhood episodes. I turned and asked the kids if they were fans.
"I used to watch him a lot, when I was a kid," Andrew said, seeming not embarrassed to admit it, but proud. I laughed. "When I was a kid," I thought to myself. Ah, to be 10 years old again. Well, I watched him too.
Then back in the office soon after the New Year, our correspondent John Donvan was sure that the retirement of Fred Rogers after more than 30 years' writing and producing and hosting Neighborhood — years of entertaining and educating children — was a story we should do. And when he asked me to help produce our program, I have to admit I had no idea what to do. Not a clue.
It had been so long since I had seen Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, but if you've watched the show as a child you really can't forget it. It's so very different than anything else kids watch, or have watched: the expressionless puppets, the songs we all know the words to, Mr. McFeely, the Speedy Delivery man who always showed up at Rogers' house with something fun and interesting.
And of course, we remember the oddly soft-spoken man who looked right at us through the camera and talked with us, not at us — not down to us, but straight on, honest and thoughtful.
As we started to put the program together there was a day last winter that Mr. Rogers was coming to Washington. He was in town for a conference of PBS educators, and he'd be getting an award for a lifetime of good work. We decided to follow him.
What we witnessed was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Wherever he went people were approaching him and reacting to him as if they had finally gotten the opportunity to meet and talk with their hero.
Between countless handshakes and a seemingly endless stream of hugs he received, you could hear the same two words, over and over. "Thank you."
One middle-aged African-American woman, clearly taken by the emotion of the moment, really had to let Mr. Rogers know that he was her champion. Passionately she grabbed his hands, looked him in the eye and said, "When I was a little girl there were many confusing messages about black and white and who belonged where, but we knew we belonged with you."
There were many of these kinds of interactions that night, and slowly, since I'm not that bright, I started to see what I was missing. For people who grew up watching Neighborhood, or their parents, or the ones who watched and now have children who do — for them it is much more than a children's program. Clearly it's a relationship through television. For all these people, that's a wonderful gift Rogers gave to them, and now they had a chance to say thanks. I imagined this happens a lot in the life of Fred Rogers. It must take him forever just to get through the grocery store.