Memories from "The Neighborhood"

file26-435-1.jpg

Vince Isner
The recent buzz around the documentary about Mister Rogers, "Won't You Be My Neighbor," has stirred up a lot of fond and poignant memories.   At the start of my career I aspired to become a children's television producer and sought the counsel of Fred Rogers, who, against all odds, took me under-wing, served as my graduate advisor and mentor, and became for my family and me not only a dear friend, but the embodiment of what "loving your neighbor" was all about.

"Loving Your Neighbor." Teaching others how to do that - in all its simplicity and complexity - is really what we strive to do at OMNIA, and as I watched "Won't You Be My Neighbor" the other night I remembered how powerfully and joyfully Rogers embodied that simple, profound, and powerful ideal.

Enjoy reading a few of those personal stories of Fred Rogers just being Fred Rogers - of moments not mentioned in the movie, but wholly consistent with the good neighbor we have all come to know and love.  Here's a chapter I wrote a few years back for a book entitled "Connected Spirits" by Andrew Weaver. 


Who Is My Neighbor?

Vince Isner

“Then he came to Jesus and asked Him, “Who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:27

Picture stepping into a space as comfortable as a favorite pair of shoes, as inviting as a familiar lullaby, as warm as a sweater knit lovingly just for you.

That is almost, though not quite, what it was like to meet Fred Rogers for the first time.

I was 21, recently graduated with a degree in music, and had my heart set on serving children and their families through television. My wife had suggested that I call Mister Rogers and try to meet with him to discuss the world of children’s television before embarking on a graduate program. Having grown up in Pittsurgh, where Fred Rogers lived and worked, she knew all about Mister Rogers, from his early days on the local daily program “Children’s Corner” to his rise as the America’s “television neighbor.” I knew only vaguely of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and even less about the man himself.

Thirty seconds – no – ten seconds into the conversation, and I knew I had met someone very special. In his now famous calm, inviting manner, he asked about my interest in children (I had never taught a single day) and about my interest in television (I had never set foot inside a studio). Fred listened to my every word with an intensity I had not expected. In turn, I wanted to know everything about his decision to serve children, his interest in puppets, music, and drama, and his sense of calling. He answered with a depth that revealed a formidable command of philosophy, psychology, and theology. Clearly this man was at home with himself and with regions of the human spirit that few have dared to tread. “I think I must be an emotional archeologist,” he would tell me years later, “I am so interested in the roots of human relationships.”

I quickly learned that for Fred Rogers, children’s television was far more about children than television, and that “the Neighborhood”, as he called it, was an intentional means of sharing deep and abiding truths about what it means to be in community with one another.

 Note from Rogers, critiquing an early script from my first TV show

Note from Rogers, critiquing an early script from my first TV show

We became fast friends and Fred became my graduate advisor. Throughout my studies Fred assigned many books and critiqued my scripts, songs, and other creative material. During the course of our many visits I learned that Rogers was a highly disciplined man who swam daily, prayed ceaselessly, read constantly, laughed easily, and quiet though he was, never shied away from life’s harsher realities, especially when he could envision a way to help.

However, the most important lessons I learned from Fred Rogers were not found in the books he assigned, nor in the letters he wrote (though every one I cherish for their warmth and wisdom), but rather by observing Fred interact with those with whom he came into contact. If anyone knew what it meant to be a neighbor in the Biblical sense – it was Fred Rogers.

Walking about with Mister Rogers’ in his neighborhood was simply life-changing. From a visit over lunch in my graduate school days in the late 70’s to a warm afternoon a few years before Fred’s death in 2003, and all the times in between, Fred Rogers embodied kindness and grace.

“Would you mind if someone joins us for lunch today?” Fred asked at that late 70’s Friday lunchtime meeting, “I think you will like Jack.” I was delighted to meet anyone who was a friend of Fred Rogers.

We left the studio, drove downtown, and walked a couple of blocks. Then, instead of turning into the restaurant, Fred led me into the lobby of the old Pittsburgh YMCA, onto a musty elevator, and finally up to the 7th floor, where we walked down a dark seedy hallway to a brown painted door. Knocking, he said, “Jack, it’s Fred and Vince.” Just fifteen minutes earlier we had been standing in the set of the Neighborhood of Make- believe. Now there we were, Fred in his crisp slacks, white shirt, bow tie and jacket, announcing our presence from the hallway of a flophouse in the middle of downtown Pittsbugh.

 Former YMCA, Pittsburgh, PA

Former YMCA, Pittsburgh, PA

The door opened and to my astonishment, there stood a muscled, bearded, long-haired roughneck in a black t-shirt and jeans and a gaze that made me think we had knocked on the wrong door. However his expression quickly turned to a smile and he said, “Fred! Hey, man, good to see you. Come in.” We stepped inside a decidely “uninviting” room. (Trust me, the Village People notwithstanding, it is NOT fun to live at the Y.M.C.A!) There was, however, one homey touch – a picture of a smiling gold-sweatered Mister Rogers pinned to the wall next to the door.

We were in the right room after all.

At the restaurant I learned that Jack was my age, though an abusive childhood, a brutal adolescence, and some bad decisions resulting in a short incarceration had left him hardend and aged. Jack explained that he had met Mister Rogers at the playroom at the prison that Fred had helped to create (to give inmates a comfortable place to visit their children) and where Rogers had noticed his delight and ease with children. I learned that Fred had taken an interest in Jack, and, following Jack’s release, was helping him get on his feet again. Jack, in turn, was teaching Mister Rogers a thing or two about life on the other side of the tracks. And the conversation – well, it was fascinating, and something like:

Jack: “Whatcha working on for the show, Fred?”

Fred: “We are doing a week of programs on the theme of going away and coming back. It’s very important for children to understand that, you know. Jack, did you talk with your parole officer this week?”

Jack: “Yea, but he says I can’t do the parking meter job since I have a record. And yea, I know a thing or two about parents going away and NOT coming back.”

Fred: “Well you know I am certainly interested in your story.”

Witnessing such an unlikely exchange between two vastly different yet obviously trusted friends, Fred and Jack taught me a vital lesson that day. I learned that the human heart is a vast and holy space, and it takes great courage to stand at its door and knock.

It also takes great courage to open it.

pacifier.jpg

Many years and nearly twenty five years of visits later, I met Fred, again for lunch. This time we walked to a neighborhood café, passing through a residential area. As we walked I glanced down and noticed a blue baby pacifier on the sidewalk. I stepped over it and kept going.

Fred noticed it and stopped. Then picking it up he said to me, “Someone has lost something very important.” And before I could nod in agreement, he was bolting up the steps to a red brick row house, again, knocking on a door.

A young woman answered and smiled immediately, “Mister Rogers – what a surprise!” Fred showed her the pacifier, “Do you have any idea whose this may be?” The woman answered, “Yes, that’s my son’s.” “Oh, good,” Fred smiled, handing her the pacifier, “I thought there might be someone who would really miss it”

Twenty-five years of visits, and here, to my delight was another life lesson: The human heart is indeed a vast and holy space, worthy of touching and being touched by those whose faces we may never see.

A few days after Fred had appeared on stage with the President of the United States, we met for lunch and I eagerly asked him about all of the behind-the-scenes drama. Fred shared a few general impressions, then became very quiet and said, “You know, Vince, the longer I live the more I realize that life’s most important moments are rarely in the spotlight. I think that the really important dramas almost always happen in the wings, where few people notice. It may be a quiet moment in which a person forgives another, and helps create a nourishing space for that person – or maybe just a time when we are there for someone who needs us. Those are the things that matter most in this life.”

I thought of how he was there for a brief moment for a baby who had lost something very important. I thought of how he was there for Jack – not just for a lunchtime, but for a lifetime, for Fred Rogers wrote to Jack, visited with him whenever Jack was in town, and called him religiously every first Saturday of every month until the day he died.

If I have learned anything at all from walking about in Mister Rogers’ “real” neighborhood, it is this – that being a good neighbor certainly does not depend upon who our neighbor is or whether that neighbor may be found in a row house, a flophouse, or the White House. It isn’t necessarily about what we decide to DO to feel like a good neighbor. Rather it is more about deciding the kind of neighbor we want to BE – and then being that person no matter what for whomever is in our orbit and in need of our gifts of care.

So thank you, dear friend, for teaching me through our walks, our talks, and those extraordinary times out of the spotlight, what it means to be a good neighbor. I have learned well that the human heart can be a vast and holy space. Though it beats quietly and is rarely at center stage, it is nevertheless the very neighborhood in which all true salvation happens, both for the one who knocks and for the one who answers.