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It’s You I Like

When Mr. Rogers came to our neighborhood

Cindy Gabriel
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Cindy Gabriel

A GOOD FEELING The Tom Hanks movie made Cindy Gabriel think of another reporter who fell under Mr. Rogers’ spell. (Photo: Julia Gabriel)

The very fact that a Tom Hanks movie about Mr. Rogers exists gives me hope for 2020. Maybe 20-20 will represent an improvement in the way we see things. Yep. That’s it, I’m sure.

My inner nerd loved Mr. Rogers back in the ’80s, as a 20-something reporter for Channel 11. I didn’t admit that out loud in the consultant-driven pop, bang, sizzle world of TV news, until one day.

That was the day Mr. Rogers came to the Texas Medical Center in Houston, my neighborhood. The morning story-assignment ritual included a run down of news releases about upcoming events for the day. Most were ignored, but some ended up on the maybe list.  

When I learned Mr. Rogers was coming to Texas Children’s Hospital, I shot out of my chair. I wanted that assignment. I was adamant. Some “Oh, Cindy” giggles and eye rolls later, the assignment was made.

The camera guy and I were the only media types to show up to the pediatric cancer floor of Texas Children’s Hospital. A relieved hospital public relations staff couldn’t wait to stop Mr. Rogers from his rounds and pull him into an interview. 

But he gently refused. Mr. Rogers felt his time was better spent with kids who weren’t strong enough to attend his “show” later in a conference room.  

Time is never your friend in TV news, but, strangely, it worked out for me to sit through the intimate conference-room gathering of about 40 people. It was set up more like a living room, with sofas and chairs pushed up against the wall, as parents and children well enough to attend sardined themselves into the space. A piano was at the front of the room next to the door. 

John Costa, his longtime pianist, was at the bench smiling as everyone got situated. I snuggled in on the floor next to the wall. The camera guy and his camera stayed outside setting up for the grab outside the door. (Sorry, “camera guy.” I don’t remember who you were.)

It must have been winter because I recall sweaters, blankets and a carpeted cozy atmosphere. With that, Mr. Costa swiveled around and hit the keys with the famous musical intro.

Right on cue, Mr. Rogers enters the room, carrying a bag and singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood….” Then, as he starts talking, we are all let in on how Mr. Costa improvises the perfect musical phrases, adding a magical quality to Mr. Roger’s seated monologue. So, that’s how it’s done.  

In this safe, comfy Mr. Rogers world, out from his bag comes a limp, Daniel-the-Tiger puppet, who comes to life as Mr. Rogers slips him on his left hand, stroking him with his right. Daniel is shivering. He’s scared. He can hardly speak. (The piano reacts with nervous tinkles.) He’s never been in a hospital, and he’s not sure he likes it. Mr. Rogers assures him that it’s full of nice people who want to make him better. But he isn’t having much luck getting Daniel to relax.

So, he asks the children in the room, most snuggled up next to a parent, to help him make Daniel feel more at home. He walks on his knees to each child, one at a time, and asks if they want to hug or speak to Daniel to help him feel better. The first hug comes from a little girl sitting shyly in her mother’s lap. Daniel says it helps a little bit. The piano tinkles agree. With each stroke or hug from a child with cancer, Daniel and the piano brighten. Mr. Rogers circles the room on his knees as child-like hugs, pats and “I love yous” slowly relax Daniel. Compassion fills the room as wet-eyed smiles come and go from parents and hospital staff trying to hold it together. Just when it is about to feel like more than one can take, there is a rapid rap at the door.

“Speedy Delivery here.” It is David Newell, aka Mr. McFeely, with a quick letter and fast-paced song, and then out the door he flies.

This was quite a road-team cast for such an intimate gathering. You would think it would at least be in an auditorium, but Mr. Rogers didn’t care much about how the “real world” operated.

As the visit wrapped up, I took my place outside the door next to the camera set-up. But Mr. Rogers still wasn’t quite ready. There were a few children who were not in their rooms on his first round. He wanted to stop by and catch them now. We waited again. 

Finally, our turn came. I don’t remember what I asked. It was probably about his reasoning behind his methods in that cozy room. Mr. Rogers explained that the way the children comforted Daniel-the-Tiger is an indication of the way they, themselves are being comforted. He praised Texas Children’s Hospital for doing a good job. Trying to be brief, in a space where I was just another person, I thanked him for his time. His response has played like a tape in my head ever since.

“Your questions are very thoughtful. There should be more reporters like you.”

In 2020, I hope I will tell more people the qualities in them that I like.

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