Stafford: Meeting Mr. Rogers was one of the ‘richest experiences of my life’

First of a two-part series

I was munching popcorn and lounging in a leather seat in the back of a movie house last Sunday when a scene opened on the screen and I was hurtled back in time and space as through a wormhole.

Instead of being 65, I was 29 again.

And instead of sitting in a Miamisburg theater, I was wide-eyed in the WQED Studios in Pittsburgh - where the movie had taken me.

I once again was in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

It was something of a fluke that I went there on the News-Sun’s dime in the winter of 1984, when our children were 5 and 2.

I was told the News-Sun publisher of the time learned that he was paying for my mileage and hotel expenses when his wife opened the Sunday paper and announced to him that one of his reporters had gone to Pittsburgh for what clearly wasn’t a local story.

Luckily, the reimbursement went forward without issue and my employer underwrote one of the richest experiences of my life.

That experience is what sent me to the theater last Sunday to see the Tom Hanks movie, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

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Those expecting a bio-pic of the late, great children’s television host Fred Rogers will be disappointed. In a phone conversation last week, there was some of that in my brother’s voice when he told me he had heard the film was more about the fictionalized journalist than Mister Rogers.

It’s more than that.

By brilliantly placing a troubled adult at the center of the story, writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have shined a light for adults on what resides at the deepest heart of Rogers’ lifelong body of work with children.

Directed by Marielle Heller, the film makes clear that in his television home and on trolley trips to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Fred Rogers, an ordained minister, tried to both live by and teach the youngest of souls an important lesson: That whatever neighborhood we inhabit, we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

I was never as cynical as Tom Junod, the Esquire writer after whom the movie’s Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys) is modeled. But most everyone who came in contact with Fred Rogers wondered what Junod and I did: Is this guy for real?

He was, both in spades and cardigans.

In his thunderously understated way, Fred Rogers was most charismatic person I have ever met.

The reason appears over the course of the film, including briefly when Rogers’ voice announces to Vogel on the day they meet that, in the moments spent together, Vogel is the most important person in Rogers’ world.

In the moments I spent with Rogers, I felt I was the only other person on the planet, a feeling with a power that’s difficult to describe.

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Even before answering my follow-up questions on the phone, he asked me how my wife and our children were and what I had been reading. Why? Because before talking to Tom Stafford the journalist, he wanted to talk with Tom Stafford the human being.

During a scene in which Rogers and Vogel are in a café talking about Vogel’s troubled relationship with his father, the movie tries to evoke that powerful feeling.

In the midst of the conversation between the two comes a slow motion sequence in which Tom Hanks looks directly at the camera - and audience — just as he’s been looking at Vogel.

Each audience member sees the smile that’s so often associated with Mister Rogers’ persona slowly fade as the face of a person accustomed to listening to the deepest difficulties of others comes forward.

And that reminded me of something I’ve told journalism students about interviews with people who have been through traumatic events: They will tell you anything you are emotionally capable of hearing - and they have a natural sense for your capacity for that.

Like the real Mister Rogers, Hanks’ Mister Rogers describes that phenomenon in terms of helpful relationship: “Anything we can mention we can manage.”

In other words, anything we can talk about - even those most difficult matters — we can do something about.

And that’s what Hanks’ Rogers tries to do.

In the movie, as in real life, the most troublesome issues we face are marked by the presence of two emotions: Anger and a sadness that makes it impossible to speak and fills our eyes with tears.

In “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” that happens to Lloyd Vogel more than once. And I distinctly remember that happening to two men who were our neighbors during the years that our two children were watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

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The first of them repeatedly teared up when he told me of his deepest desire to end the estrangement he felt from his family - an estrangement he found himself unable to overcome due to a combination of his own guilt and a fear that his parents would be unable to forgive him.

The other neighbor, whom I then considered to be a tough guy, teared up when I was holding our then toddler son Benjamin in my lap and sitting on the porch swing. His voice failed him before he was able to say, “I wish my dad had done that with me.”

Both stories, it seems to me, were childhood stories very much alive in the world of adults, as is the case in the movie. And both involved what Rogers described to me in 1984 as the kind of “inner drama” going on in each of us.

Rogers’ point was that such inner dramas also play out in the lives of children.

It’s to that end that some of his programs dealt with superheroes, who help children imagine themselves to be powerful in a world in which they are not. It’s to that end that, later in his career, he added to an already extensive library of episodes with week long themes on daycare, divorce and economics. And it’s to that end that he created a set of “Let’s Talk About It” booklets about going to the hospital, death, divorce, moving and entering school.

It’s also to that end that Hanks’ Fred Rogers encourages the film’s tormented journalist to come to grips with a relationship with his father so brilliantly portrayed by Chris Cooper, before it’s too late.

Accompanied by lush music and piano stylings of the sort that John Costa contributed to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” more than a biopic.

It is a soul-pic of one of the most soulful persons I will have known in my lifetime.

Next week: Mister Rogers and the Christmas Season

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