My Unexpected, Wonderful Encounter with the Real Mr. Rogers

Last night, Thanksgiving evening, I relaxed on the couch with my turkey sandwich and watched the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” Especially in this political climate, the perfect way to end the day of gratitude.

And so, with the new release of “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” I believe this writing to be timely.

Little did I know that on a special day in November 1993 (note fanny pack and hairstyle) I would unexpectedly be invited into Mr. Rogers’ world.

I was attending an early childhood conference in Anaheim, CA and decided to bring my mother along for a little getaway. Mr. Rogers would be the keynote speaker that evening.

That morning, Mom and I cruised the giant exhibit/presentation hall. That’s when I heard the familiar voice – not through the television, not through a microphone, but behind me.

Rounding the partition, I found the man himself speaking with David, his assistant. I suppose they were discussing setups for the evening’s presentation.

Thrilled beyond reason to meet a man who cared deeply about the well-being of children, I introduced myself – told him about being a director of a child development center, about being a mom, and thanked him for his continuing service to children. Then, in his gentle way with words, he thanked me.

That’s when my mother said, “I’m just the grandmother.”

Mr. Rogers’ eyes widened. He spoke to Mom for a while about the importance of grandparents in the lives of young children. She stood a little taller. It was as if he knew she needed to hear those words.

“Mr. Rogers,” I said. “I so wish I would have brought my camera along to show the kids at my center.” (This was before iPhone and digital cameras)

“Oh, that’s all right,” he said, and turned to his assistant. “David, can we borrow yours?”

After David took our photo, Mr. Rogers added, “Now a picture with grandmother.” (It is one of my favorite photos of my beaming mother)

After the photo op, Mr. Rogers asked David to please send the pictures to me. I received them within a week.

The speech he gave that night was, no surprises here, about love. It was also about the importance of inspiring children by showing them the things you love to do – reading, playing an instrument, singing, etc. – anything that may encourage their sense of wonder.

On a shuttle from the conference back to the hotel, attendees were buzzing about Mr. Rogers. Here’s an amazing account from another person who had an encounter with Mr. Rogers.

(paraphrasing) “Years ago, my four-year-old daughter and I ran into Mr. Rogers at the airport where he sat eating an ice cream cone. My daughter ran up to him. As he spoke to her, I assumed he felt a bit guilty for eating ice cream in front of her because he asked if she wanted a taste. So,” she told us on the bus, “I ran up to him at the conference and told him how my daughter never forgot that day at the airport. And do you know what he said? He said, ‘And how is Elaine?'”

Mr. Rogers had remembered that little girls name.

Today, I wish the politicians who bully and berate others could have a healthy dose of “Mr. Rogers.” Because, what they don’t understand is this – the children are listening. Are these the behaviors we want engrained in our youth?

When I think back on that special day in 1993, I try harder to focus on kindness. And when I do? I stand a little taller.

“There are three ways to ultimate success. The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” – Fred Rogers

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Published by

Carolyn Dennis-Willingham

Carolyn is the author of two published books – No Hill for a Stepper, 2001, and The Last Bordello, 2016. Her third novel, The Moonshine Thicket, is set in 1928 and is currently enduring a professional edit. When not on her laptop, she serves as a lap top for her grandchildren. She is a retired Early Childhood Specialist, a fitness boxer, artist, and a ball thrower for her ever-persistent mini Aussie. In addition to her blogging website, carolyndenniswillingham.com, you may find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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