My wife, Ann, is not easily impressed. You might say she was born without a celebrity-awe gene.
When she and I met, more than 50 years ago, I tried to boost my stature by bragging that I had just gone bowling with Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence, while interviewing them for a story I was writing for the Indiana Daily Student newspaper.
Ok, for those of you younger than 65, you might need to look them up online to be properly amazed.
Ann was not impressed.
She remained unimpressed throughout our marriage when I name-dropped other American icons I had met and/or interviewed — Bob Hope, Robert Redford, Cowboy Bob Glaze, George Gobel, Richard Nixon, Buffalo Bob Smith, Oral Roberts, Loretta Lynn, Ann Landers, Dick the Bruiser, Mike Pence, Orville Redenbacher, Dale Evans, Colonel Harlan Sanders, Ed McMahon, Ross Perot and Eugene Changey (a Cleveland, Ohio, man who claimed to be “Almighty God”).
Then in 1977, while I was writing for a publication in Dallas, Texas, I happened to mention to her that I had been assigned to interview a children’s TV performer from Pittsburgh, who was in town speaking to the divinity students at Southern Methodist University (SMU).
“My lord,” she said, “is it Mr. Rogers?”
At the time, I knew little or nothing about Fred Rogers. Unlike Ann and our two small children, I was not a devoted viewer of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” But I could tell from Ann’s excitement that Mr. Rogers was much higher on her list of important people than the likes of Nixon, Redenbaucher (as much as she loves popcorn) or even Cleveland’s “God Almighty.”
Begs turned to threats, and two days later — on what was supposed to have been my day off — Ann was sitting next to me in a conference room at SMU with Fred Rogers seated across the table, smiling as if he really did like us “just the way we are.”
As I scanned my notes on a long legal pad and prepared for my first question, Ann went ahead and began the interview without me. Over the next hour, I occasionally attempted to ask one of my questions, but finally gave up. In reality, the interview went on better without me, so I just took notes.
Now and then Rogers would look my way — probably concerned in his gentle fashion that I was being excluded from the neighborhood and needed to be comforted and invited in. I would smile and nod my head to let him know I was OK and then go back to my note taking.
He and Ann talked about children and about how television should be a means of positive emotional education. They talked about the role all adults must play in nurturing, teaching, respecting and protecting children.
As Ann interviewed Mr. Rogers, he also interviewed her and me about our family. He asked for our views on various subjects about children, and he listened intently. After the interview, he and Ann exchanged addresses. As we left the interview room and shook hands in the hallway, she and I felt we were saying goodbye to a close friend or family member with whom we had just had a very personal conversation.
The next week, Ann sent Mr. Rogers a tie she had made out of African tie-dye cloth. A week later, she received a hand-written letter from him, thanking her for the tie and saying how much he had enjoyed our conversation.
I was impressed — not just by Ann’s in-depth, off-the-cuff interview, but by how much the televised Mr. Rogers and the face-to-face Fred Rogers were the same person. Through the years, he has been a true American hero to our entire family.
Last week our whole extended family went to see the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which opened nationwide Nov. 22. Tom Hanks plays the role of Fred Rogers in a story based on a 1998 interview of Rogers by a cynical Esquire magazine writer, Tom Junod.
Just as I discovered when I sat in on Ann’s interview in 1977, Junod (called Lloyd Vogel in the movie) found Rogers to be more than a TV celebrity. He was “the real McCoy” — an honest, humble and morally-centered person, unchanged by the fame that came his way.
Nothing against Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence, but Ann was right from the start. Mister Rogers is the only truly impressive person I almost interviewed in my long newspaper career.