Mister Rogers wasn’t cool when he first appeared on PBS in 1969. At least not in my neighborhood.
His television show was for the less-than-mature audience. As the last-born in a family of eight kids, I was the designated channel-changer for my older siblings, and I can still hear the instantaneous demands to “Turn!” every time his show popped up on the local PBS station. Even within my neighborhood group of friends, a true insult was telling someone “to go home and watch Mister Rogers.” That line would crush any boy’s ego.
The message was clear: If you wanted ridicule, watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Fast forward to the start of my parenthood. Spending mornings with my young daughter, I found that 30 minutes of television time fit perfectly in between breakfast and our walk around the block. Unfortunately, the 9:30 a.m. PBS slot was filled by, of all shows, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The trolley was back to haunt me 30 years later. Besides which, I now lived in Pittsburgh, the real-life home to Mister Rogers.
Yet this version of Mr. Rogers was different. Or maybe I was different. The older me had learned about child development, lifespan theories and brain development. I had worked with children. I had studied creativity. Perhaps most importantly, my vision had changed. I now saw the world as a parent.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” had become pure magic. It had a beautiful simplicity marked by a wonderment at the world, a curiosity about things taken for granted, and stories of people working through problems. Mister Rogers embodied a spirit of unconditional care and acceptance, a fervent faith in children and a calming gentleness that communicated safety. His present-focused manner was the antithesis of the stressful, multitasking world of parenthood that I had come to know all too well.
He became a central figure in my emerging fatherhood. My daughter and I sang his songs during our morning strolls. We played in the local Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh section dedicated to his program, one that came complete with a trolley and his trademark sneakers. When visiting Idlewild & SoakZone, a nearby amusement park, we saved the best ride for last, an actual trolley ride that featured characters from his show.
This new “Neighborhood” was mesmerizing to my daughter and me. Well, perhaps more so to me, particularly with the drop-in visits from people like the police officer and the mail carrier.
Around my daughter’s second birthday, I had a Mister Rogers-inspired idea. Why not invite one key person in my daughter’s world to dinner each month? The local children’s librarian could visit one evening, and perhaps the borough mayor could drop by a few weeks later.
But I wanted to start at the top.
“Let’s invite Mister Rogers himself,” I said to my wife. “After all, he lives just a few neighborhoods away. I bet he’d come.”
She looked at me as if I wanted to invite the pope. “You really think Mister Rogers would come to our house for dinner? Fat chance.”
Undeterred, I sent a letter to Mister Rogers that fall, telling him of my newfound delight in his show and my idea for inviting neighborhood people over to talk about their lives, and asking him and Mrs. Rogers to be our inaugural guests.
I told my daughter about the letter. Her eyes glistened. “Mister Rogers coming? Really, Daddy?”
One month later, no reply. My daughter hadn’t forgotten and periodically asked when Mister Rogers would be visiting. He hadn’t called yet, I said, and channeled Mister Rogers in telling her that it was a good opportunity to learn about patience.
Two months later, no response. At the three-month mark, my wife simply rolled her eyes when I raised the topic. I was beginning to lose optimism. Mister Rogers had let me down.
Sadly, Mister Rogers passed away in late February of the following year. I was unaware of his illness and now understood why our invitation had gone unanswered. I took my daughter to the Children’s Museum about a week later and we spent time in his presence, playing on the trolley and singing along with his songs.
No, Mister Rogers would not be coming to dinner after all.
Yet, even after his passing, Mister Rogers gave us a far greater gift than I ever could have imagined.
Upon arriving home from the museum that afternoon, I was stunned to find a letter in our mailbox from Mister Rogers. The accompanying note from his associate producer indicated that it was among the letters written in the early stage of his illness.
The one-page typed letter was akin to something from an old friend: personal, gracious and caring. He apologized for not responding sooner and told us that he was honored by the invitation before saying that he couldn’t attend. He appreciated my daughter’s enjoyment of “our television visits,” mentioning her twice by name, and expressed gratitude for my comments on his program.
The letter, framed and prominently mounted in our home, is a treasured gift. His heartwarming gesture 17 years ago means all the more to me during this pandemic, a time of despair, distress and isolation for many in our neighborhoods. His note inspires me to be a better neighbor, to make it more of a point to greet people by name, recognize birthdays and offer random acts of kindness to unknown others in my communities.
His parting gift motivates me to teach my daughters the importance of neighbors in the world. I hope that they become ambassadors of Mister Rogers’ spirit as they navigate young adulthood, finding avenues that lift others’ spirits, even if in seemingly small ways.
Mister Rogers didn’t have to write me that letter. He didn’t know me, and my rather outlandish dinner invitation to an American icon didn’t merit a response, particularly in his last weeks of life. Yet his kind words touched my life and rippled out to others, including my daughters, colleagues and friends.
Yes, Mister Rogers never came for dinner, but in the end he shared much more enduring gifts with me: Believing in others. Hoping for the future. Seeing true dignity in humankind. And knowing that, when least expected, sometimes the best presents in life come from a special neighbor.
“Thank you for taking the time to be in touch with me,” he wrote toward the end of his letter. No, Mister Rogers, I am — and will always be — the one thanking you.
John McCarthy, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He recently released “The Innovator Next Door: 50 Stories of Creative Inspiration to Spark New In-The-Box Thinking.” His writings have appeared in The Buffalo News, Cleveland.com, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Counseling Today and the Psychotherapy Networker. He blogs at creativestrengths.com.