Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 14, 2003
A neighbourhood loses a gentle man
By MSGR. JIM LISANTE
My nephew, like most baby boys, was a bundle of energy. When he learned to walk, chasing him down became a major preoccupation for every adult in the family.
I recall being in a department store with him when he was four. He was standing beside me one moment, gone in the next. For what seemed like an eternity, but was only a minute, I ran around yelling "Matthew, where are you?" Seconds later he jumped out of a clothing rack, giggling with delight.
He was one beloved handful. Matthew was a child only one man was able to calm - someone he never met, but who was a part of his day, just about every day. That man's name was Fred Rogers.
Mr. Rogers, the television personality and staple of public television, had an effect on my nephew that no one else could match. Sitting in his high chair, Matthew would study this gentle man. And, in turn, energy-filled Matthew would become the soul of serenity.
Until my nephew came into our lives, I never really "got" Mr. Rogers. His calm I interpreted as boring. His songs seemed plain silly. His style in dress and manner were anachronistic. But my nephew, and millions of others, saw something that I'd clearly missed.
What I saw as dull, they saw as kind, non-threatening and appealing. What I found saccharine, they found affirming. He told them time and time again that they mattered, that they made a difference. He let them know that not one of them was a mistake or an accident. Instead, he assured them that they had a special place in the world only they could fill. And whatever their gifts and their limits, he helped them discover how truly beautiful they are.
He did it with total sincerity. He was an obviously well-educated and experienced teacher. (In fact, he was a Presbyterian minister.) But looking at the camera, into the hearts of young people, he seemed more like a good friend. And it worked.
He taught and he encouraged. He upheld and he inspired. His reassuring routine of changing from shoes to sneakers, of getting into a cardigan sweater was calming. It's the kind of thing we do with people we like, people with whom we're truly comfortable.
Two years ago, The Christophers acknowledged the difference this beautiful man had made in the lives of so many by giving him a Special Christopher Award. From the moment he stepped off the elevator in the Time Life Building here in New York, where our award ceremony takes place, Mr. Rogers was surrounded by admirers. They all had a tale to tell about how he had touched their lives. They wanted to thank an old friend who offered them the precious gifts of reassurance, of encouragement, and of the knowledge that God did a marvellous job when he made them.
Here's the miracle I saw that night: Fred Rogers had probably heard what those people said a million times before. He was often surrounded by fans. And you'd think that he'd have pat remarks for handling these comments in a quick and facile way. But he didn't.
Each and every person he talked to got his full and undivided attention. When Mr. Rogers looked you in the eyes, you felt like it was just the two of you and that you mattered. Knowing the sincerity of the man, I think that is exactly the way he felt.
From the outset of their young lives, my nephew and millions like him got to see someone who truly embodied the belief that there's no one like you. Each of us is special. And compassion, gentleness and caring are, in the end, all that truly matter.
Mr. Fred Rogers, rest in peace, good neighbour.
(For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, Being a Good Neighbour, write: The Christophers, 12 East 48 St., New York, NY, 10017; or e-mail: email@example.com.)
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