It was 50 years ago when a quiet, shy man stepped onto a television set, walked through a door of that set, zipped up his cardigan sweater, sat down, tied his tennis shoes and then looked up into the camera with a sweet smile and asked children all over America to be his neighbor.
In the years when our children were young, I came to admire Mister Rogers for his quiet demeanor, the way our young children listened intently to his kind messages, and how he modeled living life from the inside out. While I respected him back then, it was only following his death in 2003 that he became a hero to me after I read his words and realized how deeply introspective he was and how intentionally he lived his life.
He was not just a quiet guy who fell into a popular television show — he was a man who decided how he would live his life so that he could make a difference for children and adults. And, amazingly, through the years — despite receiving every major award in television and education including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian award) — he never lost his humility, his simple manner or his authenticity. He was always Mister Rogers, to the end.
This morning, I took out a little book, “The World According to Mister Rogers,” which his wife and friends put together after his death. I didn’t know this morning that it was a 50-year anniversary of his show, and I only heard about that later in the day when I turned on the news. So it was an unexpected coincidence that I had taken the book out.
I did so because that book brings me comfort sometimes when I am sad or worried or melancholy. As I perused Mister Rogers’ quotes, they quieted me. To me today, feeling a little low, his words reminded me that, “Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness ... It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.” Today, on this gray winter day, his words from many years ago gave my blue spirit a sense of peace.
I noticed something else in his words. Mister Rogers wrote often about heroes, “Heroes are the kind of people who help all of us come to realize that ‘biggest’ doesn’t mean ‘best,’ that the most important things of life are inside things like feelings and wonder and love — and that the ultimate happiness is being able sometimes, somehow to help our neighbor become a hero too.”
Just as Mister Rogers emulated his grandfather as a hero (Mr. McFeely on the show), I emulate a hero of mine, my grandmother Lavinia. Every hero is someone who brings us a message, and she did that for me.
My grandmother Lavinia was born in on June 15, 1883, in Reading, Pa., and was a resident of Green Bay and Appleton from 1932 until her death in 1961. She was married to George, my grandfather, and they had six children, my father one of them.
Since Lavinia lived in northern Wisconsin, we didn’t get to see her very often, but every time I did see her, she made a difference inside of me, the shy little girl she taught to laugh. I remember playing “Old Maid” with her as we ate pretzels and banana splits and joked about the characters on the cards. It was with her that I first learned to laugh so hard that tears rolled down my cheeks.
For years, I have had a photo on our family room desk of my grandma Lavinia in the early 1900s looking downward as the introspective young woman she was. The photo sits in the original antique, chipped black wood frame.
I also own a handkerchief that my grandma Lavinia embroidered when she was a little girl, a handkerchief with tiny, ornate stitches forming the cursive letter “L.” While the L is for her name, I think of it as joining us together. Lavinia and Linda. Sometimes if I’m sad or worried or dreamy, I carry that handkerchief carry around in my purse to remind me of the gift she was to me.
Lavinia’s life was sprinkled with more than its share of hardships and even of tragedy which I will not detail here. But what she taught me was this: that we really can get through hardships if we remember that life is ultimately about love, that great equalizer that reaches beyond words and into the future. That belief is what my grandma Lavinia taught me and something that has carried me through dark times.
I have so many other heroes and I believe that all heroes all have one thing in common — they teach us something about how to live with courage and grace in this sometimes difficult journey. Some of my heroes are:
- Miss Winter, my eighth-grade English teacher for sharing her deep affection for words and for helping me to fall in love with “Evangeline, A Tale of Arcadia,” thus beginning my lifelong love affair with language.
- Susan B. Anthony and the suffragists for fighting for a woman’s right to vote year after year from the 1800s on, suffering ridicule, beatings and jail time. These suffragists persisted nonetheless until the 19th Amendment became part of the US Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920.
- Martin Luther King Jr., for his many words and actions that guide us toward justice and for reminding us that “it is only when things are darkest that we can see the stars.”
- Rosa Parks for being stubborn and for staying in that seat on the bus, showing us how to make change happen.
- President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for demonstrating what dignity and grace and good sense looks like in true leaders.
- The teenagers at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., for taking charge of the dialogue for gun control when the adults in Congress and in our nation are apparently too afraid to do so.
- A local hero of mine, Joannie Williams, for quietly and without notoriety taking homeless guys to their medical appointments and their court dates and the homeless shelters, and for helping the most needy to know that someone believes in them.
My hero list is much longer than that, but my favorite forever heroes are my kids and grandkids who, with their many talents and occasional hardships, with their joys and their challenges, have enriched my life and enlarged my heart in ways unbelievable. They have taught me that it is love, above all else, that is the ultimate meaning and the real redeemer of us all.
So, you may want to take a moment during this 50-year anniversary of Mister Rogers to think about (or write to) those who are heroes to you in this life and why. And as you do this, you might want to reflect on these words of Mister Rogers. “Who in your life has been such a servant to you? Who has helped you love the good that grows within you? Let’s just think of some of those people who have loved us and wanted what was best for us in life, those who have encouraged us to become who we are. No matter where they are, imagine how pleased those people would be to know that you thought of them right now.”
Always Mister Rogers, a hero to the end.