A while ago, my dad lent me a book called I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers. It’s a memoir by Tim Madigan, an award winning journalist who was sent by his newspaper to interview Fred Rogers, the host of the legendary children’s television show Mr. Rogers. What Tim Madigan found was that Fred Rogers was in real life the kind, gentle, loving man who children saw on TV. But more than that, Tim found an unexpected friendship with Fred that lasted until Fred’s death in 2005.
It’s a simple book—nothing too artsy fartsy—but I think that is part of the genius of it. Sometimes the direct clarity of good journalism lends itself well to a story, especially one that so honestly conveys the simple power of human connection.
As mentioned, this book is about Tim Madigan’s friendship with Fred Rogers, but it goes a lot deeper than that. It’s about the superhuman kindness Fred showed Tim when he needed it most, and how that, in a sense, saved Tim’s life.
Tim was a sensitive child who liked books, but his father was a tough, manly man who had little patience for sensitivity and creativity. Madigan tried to make his father proud but always felt like he fell short, which led to a depression that lasted long into his adult years. Fred called Tim’s struggle the “furies.”
Tim’s friendship with Fred, which was largely built through letters, telephone calls, and e-mails, helped Tim work through the furies, save his marriage, and grieve his brother’s passing after a long battle with cancer.
As the book progresses, you begin to get a clear picture of who Fred Rogers was—TV star, ordained Presbyterian minister, friend, husband, father, grandfather, and swimming enthusiast. You also catch a glimpse of how Fred was able to connect with people in such a personal way.
This passage describes Tim’s trip to interview Fred for the first time, and it shows the beauty and skill of Tim’s writing:
The November day a few weeks later was crisp and clear as I drove my rental car from the Pittsburgh airport toward a long tunnel in a small mountain. The skyline of downtown Pittsburgh exploded majestically into view at the far end of the that tunnel, gleaming glass towers bordered by the broad and lovely Monongahela River. Then and in my three subsequent trips to visit Fred over the years, I was always thrilled by that moment at the end of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and by my first glimpse of the gothic, towering Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, both of which made me feel that I had passed into some kind of magic kingdom where there lived a godly friend. (14)
Tim includes in his book passages from other writers that both he and Fred admired, and these often add powerful insight to the book. Here’s one of my favorite examples:
“The authentic spiritual life finds its basis in the human condition, which all people—whether they are Christian or not—have in common,” [Henri] Nouwen wrote once. In another of his books, The Wounded Healer, Nouwen wrote that a minister’s service “will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks . . . The great illusion of leadership is to think that others can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” (60-61)
Lastly, I thought I’d share one of Fred’s many letters found throughout the book. This is the letter Tim received after he asked Fred if he would be proud of him, something Tim came to realize he so desperately needed from someone he looked up to:
The answer to your question is
a resounding YES . . .
I will be proud of you. I am proud of you. I have been proud of you since first we met. I’m deeply touched that you would offer so much of yourself to me, and look forward to knowing all that you would care to share in the future. Nothing you could tell me could change my YES for you. Please remember that.
You are the only person who has come for an interview who came to church with me. I wonder if you realize how special you really are!? Your place in this life is unique—absolutely unique. I feel blessed to be one of your friends. Only God can arrange such mutually trusting relationships—for sure! For sure!!
YES, Tim, YES.
Love, Fred (44-45)
What I Learned
It’s interesting to me that it was through my father that I found this book because I saw a lot of my father in Tim Madigan. My father has dealt with his own “furies,” and maybe so have I, though to a much smaller degree. But don’t we all hurt for some reason? This book has so much to teach about hurting, and it shows that healing can come from as simple a source as a friend who is proud of you.
As cliche as it sounds, this book taught me about the power of friendship, a power we often refer to without understanding its meaning. Friendship, as this book shows, can save lives. And it doesn’t take much. Love expressed in a handwritten letter, a telephone conversation, an e-mail—these can mend hearts and heal relationships.