Michael Ryan

Truth of life can be found in a trip to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

The audience was rapt, the room mum. Tim Madigan found it the ideal teachable moment, even for a world-wise retirement community crowd.

What goes on out there, he said, pointing toward the window and a bustling downtown Fort Worth, is not the truth of life. The quiet contemplation of life’s greatest questions going on in that room at Trinity Terrace — that’s the truth of life.

It was a moment of reflection and revelation the former journalist and now author and speaker created himself, with the celestial inspiration of the celebrated man the rest of us knew as Mister Rogers but whom Madigan knew simply as his friend Fred.

A longtime Star-Telegram writer until 2014, the 61-year-old Madigan admits to having been a Captain Kangaroo kid. He remembers the tranquil fun of the show, an oasis free from society’s chronic expectations of the young. But there can be no doubt he’s learned more about life as an adult fan, and friend, of Fred Rogers.

He poured those lessons out, and bared his soul in the process, both in his 2006 book about their friendship, “I’m Proud of You,” and in his recent talk to an enthralled Trinity Terrace throng.

Madigan got a close look at Rogers’ television work during a four-day Pittsburgh stay to profile him in 1995. But perhaps most revealing was what Madigan witnessed when invited to attend church with Rogers. The pastor invited congregants to publicly share joys and concerns — and when one woman talked interminably and incomprehensibly about the evils of war, Madigan and most everyone else in church were mortified. Not Rogers, who told Madigan the woman must have been traumatized by war at some point in her life. Rogers sought her out after the service, hugged her and listened intently for minutes more — whether it made sense or not.

“That, to me, is what human greatness looks like,” Madigan said.

Just as profound is what Rogers said during their first phone interview. Rogers asked if Madigan knew the most important thing in the world to him at that particular moment. Since the two were strangers at the time, Madigan professed to have no clue. Rogers said that it was “talking with Mr. Tim Madigan on the phone.”

What a terrific bedside manner for any occasion — sending the message that being engaged with you is the most important thing in my life right now.

Fred Rogers was truly a great man. Most of us are only learning that now, in adulthood, thanks to books like Madigan’s, a theatrically released documentary last year, and news that Tom Hanks will play Rogers in an upcoming major motion picture. Madigan, who has reason to know, says the foundation of Rogers’ greatness was his ability to make you the absolute focus of his attention, and to be wholly — or is it holy? — present.

It’s a magical ability that enchanted millions of children and enveloped them in Rogers’ reassuring, nonjudgmental television hug. But even Madigan’s tender recitation of that divine touch can enrapture an audience. An adult one, at that. I’ve seen it for myself.

I didn’t need to. I was already sold.

Plus, I have my own Fred Rogers, my own image of human greatness: Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who survived multiple concentration camps to then proclaim an even more resolute devotion to life’s beauty and meaning. I know what impact such a one-in-a-billion mass mentor can have on one’s outlook on life.

Thanks to Tim Madigan, I have Fred Rogers now, too. Rogers has cast what Madigan calls his “mystical wisdom” over me. In the course of a hectic life or a stressful day, I try to channel Rogers’ calm, his unequivocal acceptance and his otherworldly willingness to relish the moment and consider it, and all those sharing it, as the most important thing. He made it look easier than it is.

I agree heartily with Madigan when he says we need Mister Rogers’ presence again, more than ever. But Madigan himself is proof that Rogers’ spirit is still with us, his soothing, salving psyche there for the adopting.

Fred Rogers helped Tim Madigan through the most crushing crises in his life, even pointing out the way to their fountainhead. But Rogers’ gentle strength can help the rest of us through everyday challenges, or just bring out the better angels of our nature.

Maybe that is, indeed, the truth of life.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.
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