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Mister Rogers: The sign of a good neighbor

Fred Rogers asked more questions of his biographer

Fred Rogers asked more questions of his biographer than she asked him. Credit: Lynn Johnson

On a February morning in 1983, my 5-year-old son handed me a record album, its worn cover and Scotch-taped sleeve evidence of many years of use.

“Maybe, he’ll sign it.”

I placed the album, “Mister Rogers — A Place of Our Own,” in my briefcase.

I can’t ask him to sign this for my kid. How unprofessional. How tacky.

I had never met a celebrity, never interviewed anyone, and never written a published word. And yet, I had agreed with my brother that right now, the darkest period in my life thus far, was the precise time to apply whatever energy I still possessed to working with him on a commissioned biography of Fred Rogers, a pioneer in children’s television.

A couple of hours after getting my four children off to school, I sat with my brother in the lobby of a small midtown hotel, testing the small tape recorder I had brought along for the interview.

“Are you here to see Fred?” asked a slim young man walking towards us.

David Newell was one of Fred Rogers’ assistants. After telling us that Fred was swimming at the New York AC and would join us shortly, he offered to answer questions we might have about the production end of the popular PBS children’s show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“You sound so familiar,” I said. “I know your voice.”

He laughed. “Speedy Delivery! Speedy Delivery!”

“O My God! You’re Mr. McFeeley.”

Turned out that anyone who worked for Rogers got to wear many hats. When Newell was not scheduling appointments for Rogers, traveling with him for speaking engagements or locating props needed for various shows, he donned false gray whiskers, a pair of rimless glasses and a cap, aging dramatically as he became Mr. McFeely, the postman racing through Rogers’ neighborhood.

Meeting a major character from a show I had been watching with one son after another for the past 15 years so delighted me that I totally forgot my role as fact gatherer. When Newell walked away to call up to Rogers’ room, my brother gently suggested I write down a couple of things the man said before I forgot. I stared down stupidly at the blank notebook in my lap. Later, in Rogers’ suite, I sat opposite Fred, placing the tape recorder on the floor between us.

What I hadn’t counted on was that Rogers was difficult to interview. And my being a novice didn’t help one bit. Questions were almost always turned back to me. When I asked about his life as an only child, he asked me what life was like with a brother and sister. When he spoke of favorite teachers, he asked if I had favorite teachers, what they taught, and what nicknames students had for them.

“You’re finding out more about me than I’m learning about you,” I teased him.

But nothing changed. The tape rolled on, capturing Rogers speaking at length about other people in his life, but revealing little about himself.

Throughout, he was a most cordial, charming man, quick to smile, slow and deliberate in his speech. I found myself attracted to him, not in some romantic, fatherly or spiritual way, but simply as a decent and caring man, much like my children’s pediatrician and my own brother. Like them, Rogers was more interested in connecting with and helping others than in touting his own accomplishments.

I knew the interview was doomed when Rogers asked me if I remembered being sad as a child or if I might be sad right now. Although I wanted to answer him, I did not. My miserable divorce and the plight of my children had no place in this interview.

After the interview, my brother and I ducked into a tiny art gallery to listen to the tape we already predicted was a flop.

Worse than a flop, it was practically inaudible. My voice was loud and clear, especially when I was answering the questions that Rogers put to me. His responses to my questions, however, were so soft that we could pick up only an occasional cluster of words.

“What do we do now?” I wailed.

We sat for the next couple of hours recording my questions on a fresh tape and then summoning up from memory Rogers’ words and stories as we remembered hearing them just a couple of hours before. We surprised ourselves at how closely our dual recalls matched and dovetailed.

A few days later, I contacted Rogers’ secretary, telling her about gaps in our biography. She asked me to send a set of questions.

Finally! Real answers to many questions. Very direct and simple answers, as it turned out.

One question required a bit of elaboration. I called the secretary again. She said Rogers was in the office and she’d let me ask him myself.

“Hello,” he said. “I hope you are feeling better. I hope you are not so sad.”

“I’m not,” I answered. The truth, kind of. His voice lifted sadness even if only for the moment. I “got” Mr. Rogers that day, though I was no pre-schooler. He let me feel, not in any make-believe way, that the world was good, that hurt could pass, that other people cared.

Dillon Press published the biography.

A few weeks later, Rogers called. He told me he liked the book and that a friend, a writer for young adults, Richard Peck, had read and liked the book, too. Rogers thought Peck would be a good choice for my next biography. Although I never got to write that one, I did move on to other writing projects, feeling forever grateful to both my brother and Rogers for providing part of the push I needed to return to the world of the living.

On this coming March 23, I will be one of the first in line to buy the new Forever stamp honoring Fred Rogers and the 50th anniversary of his television show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

I intend to stash dozens of those stamps inside an old album jacket.

Oh, yes: Although I was so sure I wouldn’t, I did pull out the album my young son had given me the morning of my Rogers interview.

And yes, Rogers signed it.

Josephine DiFranco,

Oyster Bay

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