My thoughts on a lifetime hero

(plinko has some wonderful comments as well — please read her essay.)

I met Fred (as he insisted I refer to him) twice, and both times were really meaningful for me.

The first was at a speech he gave in Battell Chapel at Yale during my undergraduate days, perhaps in 1993 or 1994. He gave a very rousing speech to over 1,000 Yalies about the purpose and meaning of his show, a topic given much analysis over the years (and within the past 24 hours). He reran a great episode where a young child, disabled perhaps with MS and quadroplegic, and he sang “You’re Special,” one of his best songs. He also did the Daniel Striped Tiger (accent on the -ed in Striped) voice, and reminded us of the basic values his television show tried to teach: individuality is good, feelings are OK, though they don’t always feel good, and imagining/pretending is a good thing to do. I went up to him after the speech, thanked him greatly for helping me stay sane as a child, and revealed a secret — that I still watched him in university, whenever I felt overwhelmed by emotion or tension. He thanked me politely and told me that I, too, was special. ME! Fred told me I WAS SPECIAL! I always knew that I was, but now I was sure, no matter how many people made fun of me for believing it, or for liking Fred.

The second time wasn’t quite as uplifting. In 1996, while I was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, Johnny Costa (Fred’s jazz piano player and music director) died. I noticed the familiar music on my radio (I always listened to jazz radio back then) and had to pull over when I heard it was a tribute to Mr. Costa. They announced that the funeral services were the next day, and you could call the station for more info — which I did. (Sadly it turned out I was the only one who did so.) I got a day off from classes & research, and headed out to the funeral — which was so incredibly moving. Fred said a few words as well, but the service was most moving when they played Johnny’s reading of “The Lord’s Prayer” set to his own piano accompaniment. It was slightly schmaltzy, but you could see how important it was to him, and the piano work was, as always, impeccable. Fred didn’t make it to the wake, but I did get a brief moment with him — he was completely overcome with emotion and in a very private place. He did manage to say that he was sad, and that he wasn’t sure he could continue making the TV show anymore.

At the wake I met with many other members of the show’s production team and from Family Communications, most of whom were somewhat religious in nature, but all of whom were genuine, caring individuals who all wanted to support each other. I spent time with Johnny’s widow, telling her how much of an inspiration her husband’s work had been for me to learn to be a jazz pianist. She told me that I should have told him that while he was alive, and he would have given me piano lessons — for free! (ACK!) Various wake attenders mistook me for someone who had been on the show (odd, that) and I spent a lot of time talking with the adult who played Prince Tuesday on the show when he was a child. They talked about having me down to the station to help out with new episodes – perhaps to continue on Johnny Costa’s spirit. (Sadly, that never panned out.)

Fred was a gentle person, exactly in real life as he was on the show. That tended to disturb people, who thought he was putting on an act. And yes, like any human, he had his failings (re: his children and the sort of multiple personality disorder he expressed when raising them using his King Friday the XIIIth puppet in the house). But I am much richer of an individual because of him. When my grandparents could no longer raise me, and I was forced to return to live with my biological parents 24/7, my father continuously resisted me watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He felt it was too touchy-feely, and sent the wrong message. Little did he know that having that lifeline, which I would even watch as a teenager on the extra television in the basement, would keep me afloat through those hard years – and has to this day allowed me access to my feelings that might have otherwise been cut off forever.

Thank you, Fred, for helping me remember all this time that it’s OK to feel, that sometimes my feelings will hurt, and that it’s not always my fault when something goes wrong. Thank you for being a friend.