In the fall of 1995, while reporting a Star-Telegram story on violence on television and how that affected children, I was able to get Fred Rogers on the telephone. The iconic host of Mister Rogers Neighborhood talked for a long time that day about his career, and how he saw his program as an antidote of sorts for the garbage that then passed for childrens television.
But what I most remember was an exchange late in our conversation. I dont really remember the context, but at one point Fred said: Do you know what the most important thing in the world is to me right now?
Mister Rogers, I could have no idea, I replied.
Talking to Mr. Tim Madigan on the telephone, Fred said.
And so it was. Not, certainly, because there was anything special about a reporter from Fort Worth, but that the most important person in Freds life was the one who happened to be with him that very moment. It was an example of his almost sacred presence, of the Zen-like way he lived from the moment he woke up in the morning until the time he went to bed at night.
Nearly a decade after his death, maybe its not that surprising that Fred Rogers still has cultural staying power.
Earlier this year, the funky, hip-hop-inspired video Mister Rogers remixed/The Garden of Your Mind was his introduction to a new generation, more than 7 million YouTube views and counting.
And Mitt Romney, in the first presidential debate, perhaps inadvertently did his part. Despite his stated affection for Big Bird, Romney said would cut federal funding of PBS. Thats why another Fred Rogers video has recently gone viral, that of his 1969 appearance before the Senate Sub-committee on Communications.
President Nixon had proposed cutting half of a $20 million federal grant to the then fledgling PBS. That was the home of Mister Rogers neighborhood. Fred was not shy about telling Sen. John Pastore, the crusty subcommittee chairman, what could be lost.
This is what I give, Fred said. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, Youve made this day a special day, by just your being you. Theres no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are. And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. Im constantly concerned about what our children are seeing, and for 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada, to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.
Then as now, it is hard to imagine anyone standing before Congress and arguing for a meaningful expression of care. Pastore was almost speechless.
Well, Im supposed to be a pretty tough guy, he said. And this is the first time Ive had goose bumps for the last two days. Mister Rogers concluded his testimony by reciting the lyrics to one of his songs for children, What Do You Do With the Mad You Feel When You Feel So Mad You Could Bite.
PBS got its money. The world got another timeless example of the power of human goodness.
Today, that example is brought to you on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. And by Gov. Romney, whom we thank.
Tim Madigan is the author of Im Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers