The sweatered crusader

The summer blockbuster movies are sprinkled, as usual, with heroes who come from other planets, are altered by nuclear radiation, or are simply gifted at violence, but when I hear the word “hero,” I don’t think of imaginary characters who populate comic books and movie screens.

I think of real people worth admiring because of what they do, what they say, how they live — people who make the world better, and make me want to be better.

When I hear the word “hero,” I think of Mister Rogers.

It has been more than 10 years now since Fred McFeely Rogers zipped up his white sweater and sat down to lace up new sneakers from St. Peter’s Provision Company, and I miss him. You can find reruns of old shows, of course, and read his books, and peruse a website packed with more lessons than the Land of Make Believe.

But I miss knowing that he would read my letters when I sent them, and write back on a gray note card with a red trolley on the front and a flowing script from a teal colored Flair pen on the inside — knowing that every word would reflect something of what I’d sent him with affirming thoughts that were as real as the stamp.He was a friend to me when he had no need to be, and I will never forget it.

Fred was always on a quiet crusade to help people get past their own heavy self-judgment, appreciate who God made them to be, and to believe in themselves. A good life doesn’t require perfection, he reminded us. In The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, he said

Some days, doing “the best we can” may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect on any front — and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.

And, for those of us who find ourselves constantly trying to do more than is humanly possible, a recent Family Communications newsletter bears a quote reminding us that

You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.

For those who had the rare privilege of knowing Fred as friend, just being around him was a constant lesson in self-understanding and other-appreciation. Almost 20 years ago, on a cold day in December, I sat in Fred’s tiny office above the Pittsburgh studio where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was filmed. There was no desk, no computer, just a couple of broken down couches and chairs piled with research materials, hand-written scripts, and toys to autograph for children. 

None of his many awards were displayed, but the walls bore inscriptions about love and grace in Hebrew and Greek, along with a large piece of Chinese calligraphy. He said it should be translated: “If you want to see yourself clearly, don’t look in muddy water.”

There was nothing muddy about Mister Rogers: he helped you discover that deep sense of who you are, things you knew as a child but have forgotten as an adult. That’s what a hero is to me: someone who not only enriches the world, but reflects back the goodness and potential that lies in others. Such living leaves a trail of star-eyed smiles behind, the happy response of people who know a hero when they see one — and are inspired to be one.

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