Monday, December 2, 2013

A Moment with Fred Rogers

Yesterday, I watched a PBS fundraising special that featured the documentary "Mister Rogers & Me."  I didn’t intend to watch it.  I was surfing the television channels and landed on that iconic moment in 1969 where Fred Rogers wins over the hearts and funding support of the U.S. Senate.

In all honesty, I wasn’t a Mister Rogers kid.  I didn’t grow up on his gentle monologues designed to reinforce my self-esteem.  But my kids did.  And I sat with them while they watched.  It seems I saw Mister Rogers for the first time through their eyes.

Needless to say, I have a real appreciation for his contribution to television and families.

One of the things I remember around the time of his death in 2003 was a story from an immigrant, a man who had come to this country as an older child and who did not know the language of his new home at first.  He said he watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and that’s how he learned to speak English. But he added that Mister Rogers also taught him about kindness, compassion and understanding.

What an impact.

That said, watching this television special caused me to reflect on the one time I met Fred Rogers.  The meeting is unforgettable on a number of levels. 

I met him during that period where I was a regular viewer of his program thanks to my young kids.  So meeting him at that moment was not at all nostalgic for me.  It was quite timely.

Further, I met him in a business context.  This is to say that as much as I could have fallen into “fan mode” and with the utmost sincerity carried on over all that he has meant to my family, I was forced to wear my “grown-up” business hat when talking to him.  The better part of valor is discretion, I believe is the saying.

So, we met one-on-one for about 15 minutes.  A meeting like that would normally have occurred in a conference room.  He chose to meet standing up in a quiet corner of a set of offices, more informally.  The purpose of the meeting was for me to brief him on some important communications activities.

So here’s what I remember.  No, here’s what I won’t forget.  His eyes were locked in on me the whole time. He was serious but not intimidating.  His laser-like focus seemed rooted in care for others and nothing else.

For the first few minutes of our conversation, we addressed the important business issues. But for the remainder of the time, he focused on how our work would affect others, not in a self-interest way but rather, he was completely centered on the well-being of people.  Even if for a few minutes, the experience was unexpectedly uplifting.

Fred Rogers made a career out of telling his young audience, “I like you just the way you are.”  He provided a source of positive self-esteem and unbeknownst to them, he introduced the concept of unconditional love.

I had the chance to get a glimpse of this in a business context. The business lesson for me was that Fred Rogers believed that in all of our capacities we can be a force for good.
Here is that classic moment where Mister Rogers wins over the crusty old U.S. Senate:

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