By Tim Hayes

This would be a special day, so I wore my best suit and favorite tie.  On this day, I would be meeting a personal hero.  I didn’t want to let him down, after all he did for me and my family.

Standing amid a group of other professionals in a special section of the Pittsburgh International Airport, each of us shined up and looking our best, we waited for this man to arrive.  The air fairly crackled with electricity in anticipation.  I looked down one of the concourses, and saw him approach.

The creases of his khaki pants fluttering in the wake of his rapid stride, his small, neat black bow tie bobbing jauntily around his wrinkled neck, and his wire-rimmed glasses bouncing atop his nose, he presented quite the picture.  The picture of a man completely at home in his own skin.  And a man who could make you feel the same way about yourself.

He bounded directly toward the gaggle of grown-ups, flashed that familiar smile…and walked right past us.  The air went out of the room for a moment, until we realized what he had in mind all along.  He went straight for the kids, who had gathered there to see him, as well.

Immediately, he squatted down to speak with them at their level, and the hugs began.  Little one after little one lunged at this skinny 60-something, their eyes wide, not with fear or apprehension – but with a hearty feeling of friendship and love.

Fred Rogers – “Mister Rogers,” he of the famous PBS television “Neighborhood” – had come to visit. 

These recollections came to me because March 20 marked what would have been his 80th birthday.  Fred Rogers passed away in 2003, and the world’s been a little sadder ever since, if you ask me.

I was at the airport that day as part of my company’s sponsorship of an interactive display for children based on his children’s program, which was produced at Pittsburgh’s public television station.  We had organized an unveiling of the display at its permanent home within the airport, complete with corporate big-wigs, local political leaders, the works.

But none of those high-falutin’ executives and power brokers could hold a candle to Fred Rogers’ ability to command attention, respect, and admiration.  That gentle voice and manner he displayed on television was no act.  Fred Rogers, an ordained minister, once said that the space between a TV screen and a child was sacred ground, and he worked his entire adult life to fill that space with holiness, comfort, and peace.  He shared that same grace in his personal interactions, as well. 

As a special bonus to my work related to the airport display project, Fred invited me and my then-preschooler daughter to the local PBS studio to watch a taping of a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode.  We were one of a number of kids and parents there that day, as you could well imagine.

My little girl brought a small doll she carried with her everywhere.  Mister Rogers stooped down to meet her and asked what her doll’s name was.  “Boy,” she whispered, glancing up at me for a quick “just-making-sure-you’re-still-there-Dad” check.  “That’s a very nice name,” said Mister Rogers.  “I’ll bet Boy goes with you lots of places, doesn’t he?”  She nodded and started to smile.  “I’m glad you’re here today with Boy.”  Then he smiled at both of us and went on to make friends with the next little family down the line.

I had the chance to visit Fred Rogers in his office sometime later for another purpose, and in the space where he wrote innumerable personal notes of encouragement to his young viewers, and where he interacted with friends and visitors who wanted to learn from his unique brand of wisdom, after we had conducted our business he made a request that no one else had ever done, before or since.

He asked me to pray with him.

It’s tough to pinpoint people who you know, absolutely know, in your mind and heart and bones, are filled with grace and are headed straight to heaven when their time comes.  But I sure knew one, even if only for a short time.  Happy Birthday, Fred.  We’d all love to be your neighbor again in your new neighborhood.

Copyright 2012 Tim Hayes Consulting