At a certain age, or so we have come to believe, a singer loses her voice. Her vocal cords stiffen and slow. Her high notes dry up. But that is not what has happened to Judy Collins.
At 80, Collins sounds as clear as a spring wending through a field of wildflowers. The ethereal soprano that guided listeners through the 1960s — the “gentle voice amid the strife,” as Life magazine proclaimed on a May 1969 cover — still resonates in 2019. This has earned Collins an almost supernatural perspective. When audiences come to see her perform, which she does about one out of every three nights, they are transported. “They’re thinking about their youth,” Collins told me. “They’re thinking about their hopefulness. They’re thinking about their dreams, when they hear me.”
Your voice is like a time machine, I said.
“It’s a time machine,” she said. “Oh, very much. Very much.”
Collins was poised at the edge of the dining room table in her bewitching Upper West Side apartment, which she has occupied for almost 50 years. She wore a crushed velvet purple jacket and a sparkling necklace that said “Resist.” Her white hair tumbled down to her slim shoulders. The outline of a swallow was tattooed on her left hand. Just beneath it, “Clark” was etched into her wrist, for her son who killed himself in 1992. Collins drank sparkling water from a purple plastic-footed glass. She goes out onstage 120 nights a year, she told me, “because I make a living. I love it. And I’m getting better at it.” Then she bounded onto a small exercise trampoline and jumped off into a tour of her apartment, and her life.
Her home had the feel of an overstuffed time capsule, as if its curator kept lifting the lid to add important new artifacts. Thirteen umbrellas overflowed from the umbrella holder. Clinton administration ephemera dotted the space, which she called “the environment.” On the walls of the environment hung her Life magazine cover, and small photographs of Western landscapes and Walton Ford’s artfully disturbing paintings of birds. The environment was lit by dragonfly stained glass lamps and softened with pillows embroidered with messages like “Friends Are the Best Present” and “One Can Never Have Too Many Cats.”
Collins has three. They are Persian cats with luxurious coats and celestial orbs for eyes. At my request, she hunted them down, and when each was discovered — the tuxedoed Coco Chanel, the blue-gray Rachmaninoff and the all-white Tom Wolfe — Collins greeted the cat in a high, fluttering soprano. “Hellothere,” she said. “Do you want to say hello?”
The hunt led us into the bedroom of her husband, Louis Nelson, who was wearing a pair of funky yellow socks and contemplating a large rendering of a dog. “I design memorials,” he told me — he designed the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall — and now he was at work on a memorial for Samantha, a friend’s old dog, who would be laid to rest in a pet cemetery upstate. “It’s an extraordinary place,” Nelson said. Collins and Nelson have themselves outlived many pets, leaving them with an unwieldy collection of feline remains. “They’re in little pots and things around the house,” Collins said. “Sometimes I think, I should get rid of these. But I can’t.”
The cats stretched and scattered, and Collins zagged through a bathroom and into her own bedroom. A folded New York Times crossword lay unfulfilled on the bed. (Recently she spotted a friend in a Monday clue: “Jong who wrote ‘Fear of Flying.’”) Around the room’s perimeter, an array of leonine wigs was assembled. Collins’s voice is unchanged, but the hair is new. Two years ago, she had surgery on her hand, and when she awoke from the anesthesia, her hair fell out. “I had fabulous hair,” she said; silky hippie goddess hair. Collins was unimpressed with how it grew back, so now she has it all shaved off: “My hair was so good that there’s no comparison.”
It is here, in the environment, that Collins does the work of maintaining her time machine. “Most days, I do a number of things,” she said. “I practice. I sing a little. I write something. I do my crossword puzzle. I write in my journals. I try to do something exciting. I go to a funny movie. I get together with friends who are funny,” she said. Collins is always collecting jokes and stories and curious observations to fill out her sets. She used to stand onstage and close her eyes and just sing songs one after the other, but when she got sober, in 1978, she began to speak. “I found out that I had an awful lot to say, which I had not realized,” she said.
In 1965, when she was 26 years old, Collins did lose her voice. She was so hoarse that she could barely talk. She called up the vocal coach and activist Max Margulis, and once she convinced him that she was not a flighty folk singer but a serious person, they embarked on a 30-year course of study. His technique was not about the mechanics of Collins singing from her head or her lungs or her chest. It focused on the clarity and precision of her phrasing. It was about meaning what she sang.
“If you’re in the forest,” Collins explained, “and there’s a bear following you, and you want to alert your family, you raise your voice and say so, because if you don’t, your family might die from the bear.” Whether you’re in the woods of Colorado or the clubs of New York City, you must always be ready to use it. “The voice,” Collins said, “is actually meant to last forever.”
In the 1960s, when folk singer-songwriters were multiplying in the West Village, Collins was best known for singing other people’s songs. She sang “Both Sides Now,” by Joni Mitchell, and she made Joni Mitchell famous. She sang “Suzanne,” by Leonard Cohen, and made Leonard Cohen famous. She had an intriguing curatorial range. She sang old standards, and contemporary folk songs, and the Beatles, and Sondheim, and a medley based on the music of “Marat/Sade.” Collins encouraged Cohen to sing his own songs, and he encouraged her to write her own songs, which she approached the same way she did everyone else’s songs. You have to write them, she said, but “then you have to figure out how to sing them.”
The art of singing other people’s songs is not fully appreciated beyond the cabaret circuit, or maybe it’s a little bit lost. Folk singers used to be called “collectors” of songs, and Collins is a master collector. “I feel as though my voice is capable of doing anything,” she told Life in 1969. “I don’t question that I can make a sentence mean anything I want it to as long as I know what it is I want to say. I don’t know why I seem to be able to do it, but I do, and I think people are pleasured by it.”
This fall, the artist Justin Vivian Bond performed a tribute to Collins at Joe’s Pub, singing songs from writers that Collins had surfaced. Listening to her music as a child, Bond was struck by her interpretive skill, by “her sense of how to sing a song,” Bond said. “She’s a great actress, in that regard. And I think that’s how a great singer is a great singer — by acting the story of the song.”
Collins’s latest album, “Winter Stories,” out Nov. 29, is a collaboration with the Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld and the bluegrass band Chatham County Line. It’s a hygge folk collection, perfect for curling up with three cats, but it also holds unexpected emotional power. On it Collins sings Mitchell’s “The River,” and her own “Mountain Girl,” and “Highwayman,” Jimmy Webb’s song about a man who is reincarnated as a thief, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship captain, which was later covered by Glen Campbell and then the country supergroup the Highwaymen. She had contemplated recording it for many years.
“I never really had the nerve,” she said. The song seemed to be owned by “the guys,” as she put it. “And then I thought, what the heck?” Collins’s version is unlike any other. In translating the masculine country anthem into her gossamer voice, she has dismantled and rebuilt the song into a testament to female resilience. After hearing it, the recordings by the other versions sound somehow muted. It’s Judy Collins’s song now.
Collins turned 80 this year. The news release in advance of the event read: “Judy Collins Celebrates 80th Birthday on May 1, Forecasts Another Prolific Year.” Her family assembled a fantasy dinner party of guests to fete her, including Gloria Steinem, Robert Caro and Joan Baez. “You have to see the jacket that Joan bought me for my birthday,” Collins said, disappearing into her closet and returning with a pink sequined number. “It’s hysterical,” she said. “She and I would never have worn this.” But a lot has changed since then.
Last year, Baez released what she said was likely to be her final album. “I asked my vocal coach many years ago when it would be time to stop,” she said, “and he said, ‘Your voice will tell you.’ And it has — it’s a muscle, and you have to work harder and harder to make it work.” Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen are dead. Joni Mitchell rarely surfaces publicly, and she will not answer Judy Collins’s letters. A whole generation of artists has fallen silent, but Collins is still singing. She is transforming old songs through her voice, and through that process she doesn’t just revive them — she remakes them.
“I notice that in old cultures, when someone is ill, they say we have lost our song,” Steinem, who has known Collins since the ’60s, wrote in an email. “Judy’s magic is that she gives us back our songs.”
There is a tendency to cast older artists as shadows. We go to their performances and listen for an echo of the star in their prime. But Judy Collins is the thing itself. “I’m a better singer now,” she said. “A much better singer.” Recently she kicked off a stretch of shows at Joe’s Pub in New York City with Fjeld and Chatham County Line. She emerged onstage in a pink sequined top — she owns multiple pink sequined tops — and a warm, daffy persona. She introduced Fjeld, and then, as she coolly tuned her guitar, she asked him, “Where is Norway, exactly?”
When they launched into “Mountain Girl,” I noticed that the men onstage looked as if they were engaged in a strenuous form of exercise. But Collins was still. Her guitar appeared to be made of air. She chased the song’s highest high notes with the relaxed air of a woman, in her environment, summoning her cats. When Collins sang her “Highwayman” — “I am still around, and I’ll always be around, and around, and around” — I felt transported, not into the past, but into Judy Collins’s present.
Up at the castle, in front of the cameras, the puppets were eagerly preparing for a festival. Dwarfed beneath high rows of stage lights, in front of painted trees, they bopped happily along the pretend stone wall. But there was a buzz kill: King Friday XIII, the mighty ruler in his bright purple cape, decreed that the festival would be a bass-violin festival.
“But you’re the only one who plays the bass violin,” one of the neighbors pointed out.
“Oh, so I am,” the king replied. “Well, it looks like I’ll have a very large audience.”
Fred Rogers was on his knees behind the castle, dressed all in black, working the puppets, his posture straight as a soldier’s, lips pursed tight as he voiced the king. There were cushions strewn on the floor and blocks of foam rubber taped to the parts of the castle where he tended to bonk his head. In one swift movement he crouched, slipped off the king, slid on another puppet. He shot his arm up, returned to his knees, but this time he slouched, his face softening as he voiced the meek and bashful Daniel Striped Tiger.
And so the neighbors scrambled about trying to figure out a way to be part of the festival. Stumped, and on the sly, they began to invent bass-violin acts they might contribute. One dressed up her accordion to look like a bass violin, another practiced a dance with one, another tried to turn herself into one by wearing a big fat bass-violin suit. Another, a goat, recited a bass-violin poem in goat language. (“Mehh.”)
Was this O.K.? Would the king approve?
He did. In fact, he was delighted. It turned into a most rockin’ bass-violin festival, neighbors singing and twirling with pretend and real bass violins (including a puppet holding a bass-violin puppet), around balloons with little cardboard handles taped to them to look like bass violins, to rousing bass-violin/accordion polka tunes accompanying bass-violin-inspired goat poems.
“If you didn’t know what was going on,” one of the guys on the crew said, “this could be a very weird situation.”
I appreciated that. I worked for a different department in the building, at WQED in Pittsburgh, down the hall. They had microwave popcorn in the cafeteria. To get to the popcorn you had to walk by Studio A, and there was usually the blue castle parked outside it for storage. If the castle wasn’t there, you knew they were taping inside, and sometimes you heard music. It was fun to go in and watch, if only to take in the live music, usually jazz, and to marvel at the bizarro factor. Like Fellini for preschoolers. My brother-in-law Hugh Martin had worked as director and producer of the program for a couple of years. He was long gone, had moved to New York, but he credited Fred with starting his career. Fred loved Hugh — so by association people were nice to me. It helped. I was 26, just out of grad school.
I wanted to ask Fred how he came up with the idea for goat poems. Whose day allows them to sit around thinking about accordions dressing up like bass violins? The first time I talked to him in his office, one floor up from Studio A, I tried to get him to explain. He kept turning the focus on me. It took us a while to get past the deflection match. He asked me about grad school. I hardly wanted to think about that, about the dark cloud hovering over my feelings about my time there. I asked him what he was working on. Any new scripts or songs?
He put his eyebrows up. “It’s so hard, isn’t it?” he said. “I think there are many people who bring a whole lot of baggage from their past and a whole lot of anxiety about the future to the present moment. What’s so great is that people can be in relationship with each other for the now.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“If we can somehow rid ourselves of illusions,” he said. “The illusion that we are greater or lesser than we are. The illusion that we’re going to save the world. There are a lot of illusions that people walk around with. I would love to be able to be present in every moment I have.”
I distinctly remember having little more to offer than, “Yeah.”
His office was more like a living room. No desk, just his easy chair and a soft brown couch — plus a flowering peace plant, a piece of driftwood, a miniature sandbox and other random gifts people had brought him over the years, many of which he pointed out, then told stories about the people who gave them to him.
“I think the greatest thing about things is they remind you of people,” he said.
I supposed so. And more so as I thought about it.
“I want to tell you about my tie,” he said. He lifted it up and looked at it. “Do you know what this tartan is? This tartan is the clergy tartan. I suppose if somebody were Scottish, they would recognize it. But I don’t think most people know. I wear this tie more than any other. Maybe I just feel, you know, that it represents a big part of who I am.”
Muted lavender and light blue, the clergy tartan is one traditionally worn only by people involved in ministry. Fred said it was a gift from Bill Barker, one of his closest friends and the minister who gave the charge at Fred’s ordination in the United Presbyterian Church in 1963: “We charge you to shake us through a God who involves Himself in our world, into the world where He already is. … This world of TV cameras, of puppets, of children, of parents, of studios, of directors, of actors, this [too] is God’s world. … We, as the Church, charge that you speak to us to disturb us. … We charge you to speak to us to remind us that we too, through you, must be involved.”
“So the show is like your church?” I asked Fred.
He thought a moment. He said it was easier to say what it wasn’t. It was not a show. He used the word “program,” never “show.”
“An atmosphere,” he said. What he was trying to create with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was “an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are.” He continued: “I really don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody. If people are comfortable in that atmosphere, they can grow from there, in their own way.
“A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil.”
He fell silent, as if adding white space around that simple, stark remark.
When we were saying goodbye, I thanked him for all he had taught me.
“I think that it is very important to learn that you get that largely because of who you are,” he said. “I could be saying the same words and giving the same thoughts to somebody else who could be thinking something very different.”
I remember protesting. I was just trying to say thank you.
“It’s so very hard, receiving,” he said. “When you give something, you’re in much greater control. But when you receive something, you’re so vulnerable.
“I think the greatest gift you can ever give is an honest receiving of what a person has to offer.”
He was impossible to thank. I remember going home that day with goat poems swirling in my head.
Fred Rogers was a curious, lanky man, six feet tall and 143 pounds (exactly, he said, every day; he liked that each digit corresponded to the number of letters in the words “I love you”) and utterly devoid of pretense. He liked to pray, to play the piano, to swim and to write, and he somehow lived in a different world than I did. A hushed world of tiny things — the meager and the marginalized. A world of simple words and deceptively simple concepts, and a slowness that allowed for silence, focus and joy. We became friends for some 20 years, and I made lifelong friends with his wife, Joanne. I remember thinking that it seemed as if Fred had access to another realm, like the way pigeons have some special magnetic compass that helps them find home.
Fred died in 2003, somewhat quickly, of stomach cancer. He was 74. It was years after his death that he would, suddenly, go from a kind of lovable PBS novelty to an icon on the magnitude of the divine. It happened so fast that it was easy to gloss over his actual message. He gets reduced to a symbol. A conveyor of virtue! The god of kindness! Something like that, according to the memes.
“Just don’t make Fred into a saint.” That has become Joanne’s refrain. She’s 91 now, still a bundle of energy, lives alone in the same roomy apartment, in the university section of Pittsburgh, that she and Fred moved into after they raised their two boys. Mention her name to anyone around town who knows her, and you’ll very likely be rewarded with a fabulous grin. She’s funny. She laughs louder and bigger than just about anyone I know, to the point where it can go into a snort, which makes her go full-on guffaw. Throughout her 50-year marriage to Fred, she wasn’t the type to hang out on the set at WQED or attend production meetings. That was Fred’s thing. He had his career, and she had hers as a concert pianist. For decades she toured the country with her college classmate, Jeannine Morrison, as a piano duo; they didn’t retire the performance until 2008.
Joanne’s refrain has been adopted by people who spent their careers working with Fred in Studio A. “If you make him out to be a saint, nobody can get there,” said Hedda Sharapan, the person who worked with Fred the longest in various creative capacities over the years. “They’ll think he’s some otherworldly creature.”
“If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked,” Joanne said. Disciplined, focused, a perfectionist — an artist. That was the Fred she and the cast and crew knew. “I think people think of Fred as a child-development expert,” David Newell, the actor who played Mr. “Speedy Delivery” McFeely, told me recently. “As a moral example maybe. But as an artist? I don’t think they think of that.”
That was the Fred I came to know. Creating, the creative impulse and the creative process were our common interests. He wrote or co-wrote all the scripts for the program — all 33 years of it. He wrote the melodies. He wrote the lyrics. He structured a week of programming around a single theme, many of them difficult topics, like war, divorce or death.
I don’t know that he cared whether people saw him as an artist. He seemed more intent that people not see him at all. Over the years he would occasionally carry a small camera in his jacket pocket. He would whip it out without warning and just start snapping away at you. No explanation. Then about two weeks later you would get a card in the mail from Fred. The pictures. On the backs of some he wrote comments. “I like this one a lot” or “You sure look surprised here!” (He would not sign the card; he would often put his words on a Post-it so you could reuse it.) You were left in a most unusual and private moment, looking at pictures of yourself from the point of view of Fred.
The focus was always on you. Or children. Or the tiny things. It was hard to see Fred. I remember those first days in his office, learning about soil, illusions, giving and receiving, concepts that would go on to rattle through me like drumbeats. It would take me years to understand it all, to see how those blocks fit together, to recognize just how radical his message was.
“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” That was Fred’s favorite quote. He had it framed and hanging on a wall in his office. “What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” from Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls,” he once said, expounding on the idea in a speech. “It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff. … What is essential about you that is invisible to the eyes?”
I like you just the way you are. One day he told me where that core message came from. His grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, who like the rest of the Rogers family lived in Latrobe, Pa., about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. “He was a character,” he said. “Oh, a lot of me came from him.” He got excited talking about his grandfather, telling disjointed stories and family lore. “If I knew how to paint, I could paint you a picture of my grandfather’s house. … He had an old horse. It was so old nothing could have happened to you. Sally. … And he’d even let me send away to Sears for things!
“He was a real pioneer!” he went on. “The fascinating thing about him was that he loved to do things so much that every time he would get something started, a company started, he’d sell his entire interest in it to be able to start something else. So when he died, I think he had all of 25 or 30 dollars. After all that. He started something like four companies in Latrobe.” Fred’s father inherited the last one, the McFeely Brick Company. “But then my grandfather retired, and he went out to the country, and he always wanted some chickens, so he bought 5,000 chickens. Then he got rid of them because that was too much trouble, and he bought 150 head of cattle, and then he got rid of them and he bought a whole lot of pigs. And then he had a slaughterhouse, and they made sausage and they evidently didn’t make a penny. The last thing he bought was a little coal mine, and then he sold that when he went into a nursing home.”
His grandfather represented a life of risk and adventure, the very things Fred’s boyhood lacked. He was a lonely kid, an only child until he was 11, when his sister came. He was bullied. Here comes Fat Freddie! He was sickly. He had rheumatic fever. He had asthma. He was not allowed to play outside by himself. His parents and the family doctor pitched in together to buy what Fred loved to say was Latrobe’s first room air-conditioner to help with his breathing problems; they installed it in a neighbor’s window for Fred and Paul, another sick child. “We rarely left that room,” he told me. “We had our meals there. After that, we got an air-conditioner in our house.” They installed it in Fred’s bedroom. It was there that he spent much of his childhood.Puppets from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:” Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII, X the Owl, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Henrietta Pussycat, Queen Sara Saturday.
He had music, and he had puppets to keep himself amused. He didn’t need much. He was expected to fill his father’s shoes, become his business partner at the brick company. “My dad was pretty much Mr. Latrobe,” he told me. “He worked hard to accomplish all that he did, and I’ve always felt that that was way beyond me. And yet I’m so grateful that he didn’t push me to do the kinds of things that he did or to become a miniature version of him. It certainly would have been miniature.”
Fred wanted to be like his grandfather. He was allowed to leave the air-conditioned room to visit him. “He taught me all kinds of really neat stuff!” he told me. “I remember one day my grandmother and my mother were telling me to get down, or not to climb, and my grandfather said: ‘Let the kid climb on the wall! He’s got to learn to do things for himself!’ I heard that. I will never forget that. What a support that was. He had a lot of stone walls on his place.
“And you can understand my mother and grandmother. They didn’t want a scratched-up kid. They didn’t want somebody with broken bones. No. But he knew there was something beyond that. He knew there was something more important than scratches and bones. … I climbed that wall. And then I ran on it. I will never forget that day.”
Joanne came into Fred’s life in college. They were music majors together at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and after graduation they lived in New York. Fred was hoping to work as a composer but had become intrigued by the nascent medium of television. He worked his way up to network floor manager at NBC before learning about a start-up, the nation’s first community-sponsored television station, WQED in Pittsburgh. Despite warnings from people at NBC who told him he was crazy — “That place isn’t even on the air yet!” — he moved to Pittsburgh in 1953, and he and Joanne bought a red-brick house.
He brought out his puppets. He found something important for them to say, thanks in large part to the person who would become his lifelong collaborator, Margaret McFarland, at the University of Pittsburgh. Along with her colleagues Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson, McFarland revolutionized the study of childhood development. She helped Fred explore the emotional landscape of children. “Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable,” she would repeatedly tell him. She taught him the ways in which empathy and people’s own experiences of childhood could enable them to accept and help children accept themselves, not as an end, but as a starting place. She provided an intellectual framework for what Fred learned from his grandfather.
“I think it was when I was leaving one time to go home after our time together,” Fred told me, “that my grandfather said to me: ‘You know, you made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are.’
“Well, talk about good stuff. That just went right into my heart. And it never budged. And I’ve been able to pass that on. And that’s a wonderful legacy. And I trust that he’s proud of that. I could have walked into some positions that were already set. I could have walked into an office that was already furnished for me. But I would much rather have done what I have done.”
It was cold in Studio A. I learned to bring a sweater. Usually I sat by the piano, with Johnny Costa, a well-known jazz musician at the time, admired by greats like Duke Ellington and Cannonball Adderley. He signed on to Fred’s program back in its earliest days. Costa was so cool. Wisecracking. He seemed way more Bugs Bunny than Mister Rogers. I marveled at the way he and Fred communicated through the piano, Costa following Fred’s movements during taping, matching his expressions with a riff or a sequence of chords, shoulders up, right hand in the air on the high notes. He was so into it. “Thank God I’m a genius,” he would say after a take.
He liked to talk about his unlikely friendship with Fred. “Me, I enjoy a good steak,” he told me. “Now Fred, he would never think of eating a steak. And I’ll enjoy a glass of wine. Fred doesn’t drink. Fred, he would never swear. Me, I would swear. You follow me?” He said he and Fred liked to talk about Heaven, about meeting Beethoven up there. Costa worried he would miss out. He was “afraid about some of my sins, you know, throughout my life.” Costa said, “I’d tell him I’m more bad than good sometimes.”
Fred told him, “Remember how you give this great comfort to people through your music.”
That was the vibe in Studio A. Fred was intentional about the atmosphere he created on the program as well as on the set. If you could provide an environment that allowed people to be comfortable enough to be, simply, who they are, what would happen? Who would they become?
“When I first started doing this,” Costa told me, “I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do kids’ music, you know?” Fred gave Costa his songs. Costa interpreted them, added the great Johnny Costa to them. “I played what I always played,” he said. “You know, I played jazz. And Fred liked it. And so it stayed. And so I stayed.
“Fred knows that I have something to give that’s important. And he lets me give it, and I give it freely, and then I’m part of it, a part of his creation.” He said pretty much everyone felt that way. “That’s what makes us so tight. It’s because Fred lets us give. And what a thing that is, huh?”“Neighborhood of Make-Believe” book, 1995. Mister Rogers showed this book in his television house.Photographs by Henry Leutwyler
This idea of accepting a person, a child or anyone as is was a novel concept to me. I had spent a lifetime in a Catholic household where adhering to dogma, rather than self-discovery, was the thing. The church supplied you with a better way to act, to think, to behave. In time I came to question if I had any of my own thoughts at all. I went to grad school. No Catholics anywhere as far as I could tell. It was exhilarating! Critical thinking was the thing. It was at first a mind-expanding drug. Deconstruct your thoughts. Doubt yourself. Doubt everything. Attack your thoughts. Attack everyone’s. Skepticism became the badge of honor. But for me it all led to a kind of sourness, a distrust of anything soft, of beauty, silence, love.
And here was Fred. Accept yourself. Accept others. As is. In Fred’s world I found my own thoughts, and quite literally my own voice, as a writer. I even wrote about him over the years, without much success. Some of the conversations and moments recalled here are from those early attempts to understand — puzzle pieces I continue to play with, all these years later, at random intervals in my day.
Fred and I commiserated about the creative process. We would often sit and talk about confronting the blank page, the blank canvas, the blank song sheet. That place of vast possibility and bottomless terror. “Why is it so scary?” he would say. “It’s so hard.” He told me he would sometimes freeze before being able to jot down a word. He had a writing room, away from the office, away from home, where he showed up on writing days no matter what. Take it on. Enter it. Sometimes in Studio A he would show me how he worked out his doubts about himself and his emotions at the piano. Banging out anything angry or anything glad. He said it helped. I told him my outlet might be something more like shopping or maybe napping. He said either of those could work.
Fred saw creating as a divine act. Inspiration happened in everyday moments. “I remember one time,” Newell told me, “Fred and I were in Ligonier, Pa., in the mountains, and we were filming a nighttime sequence. And we were driving home. And as I pulled onto the turnpike there was somebody, a soldier or sailor hitchhiking. This was like 12 at night maybe. And Fred said, ‘Look at him, he looks so lonely there.’ I said, ‘Fred, we have no room.’ We had a full car of equipment. He let it go. Or, well, I guess he didn’t. A couple of weeks later, he wrote a song.”
Hello there Are you lonely Are you a lonely neighbor Alone tonight Hello there If you are lonely Then you need only say Hello there I’m lonely Hello there Just say hello
That was the place where Fred and I connected, and it was also the place where he lived. This place of creating, of making stuff, and I know for him it was vital, a lifeline. He said he thought it was for me, too. In fact, he thought it was true for everybody. Fred believed that the creative process was a fundamental function at the core of every human being.
“I think that the need to create has to do with a gap,” he said. “A gap between what is and what might be. Or what you’d like to be. I think that the need to create is the need to bridge that gap. And I do believe it’s a universal need. Unless there is somebody out there who feels that what is, is also what might be.
“I don’t know anybody who has complete satisfaction with everything. Do you?”
On the beach in Nantucket, he was wearing a tattered windbreaker, loosefitting chinos and the famous blue sneakers. It was the summer of 1992, almost a decade into our friendship. He was struggling to carry all the stuff he had gathered: a ratty old beach chair, a towel, a ball cap. Joanne and I were not exactly helping. These things were filthy, random junk having washed up on the shoreline at various stops along our walk. At one point he put them down and charged toward something else that had caught his eye. It was a sheet. A dirty old sheet. “Now, what size is our bed?” he called to Joanne as he began spreading it out on the sand.
“Uh, Rog,” Joanne said, as we drew near. “I don’t think — ”
She looped her arm around mine.
He looked at us, seemed to genuinely calculate the sincerity of our disapproval, then glanced back down at the sheet.
“It’s disgusting, Fred,” I said.
He put it down, gathered up the other stuff, and we toddled back to the house without comment. By this point, I was pretty used to Fred’s quirks. He was definitely a guy drawn to junk. To the world’s discard pile. He liked flea markets. On Nantucket, where he and Joanne spent summers in the small cottage they called the Crooked House (it leaned), he liked to stop by the town dump just to browse. That weekend he had rescued a cement deer from the dump, a lawn ornament or something. It was missing an ear. He had it perched on the porch railing at the house, and he kept calling our attention to it. “Yup, nice deer, Fred.”
The tiny things. The meager and the marginalized. This emphasis was ever-present in Fred’s life — in everyday exchanges at home, in speeches, in scripts and in songs. He embodied a kind of simple/fancy dichotomy. Simple was a virtue. Fancy was suspect. Simple was pure. Fancy was exhausting and vapid. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.
That year I went with Fred to something that was anything but simple. It was a fund-raiser for George H.W. Bush’s 1992 re-election campaign. The decision to attend was out of character. Fred did not endorse politicians, ever. He was a pacifist and was vehemently opposed to Bush’s war in the Persian Gulf. But somehow he had agreed to do this favor for friends involved in arranging the event. Newell, who doubled as the program’s public-relations guy, went with him, and so did Bill Isler, president of Family Communications, the company that produced the show. (It would later change its name, after Fred’s death, to Fred Rogers Productions.) I remember that Isler was nervous, and Newell was rattled, and Fred was trying to pretend he wasn’t angry or, at least, miserable.
We arrived late, skipping the cocktails, and entered a ballroom at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Fred was scanning the room as if expecting ghosts to pop out.
“You O.K. there, Fred?” I asked.
“I just don’t know what to expect,” he said. “You know, that’s why I sing that song, ‘Children Like to Be Told.’ ”
Just then Secret Service officials popped out. “Hello!” Fred said with a little hop, like when a balloon pops. They took us to a little room. They pulled back a blue curtain and there was the president of the United States, standing between two big potted plants. “Thank you for coming!” Bush said to Fred. “I am so sorry Barbara isn’t here. She is a real fan of yours.”
I don’t remember anything else about the small talk. I just remember Isler yanking Fred aside to provide commentary. “My God, you guys look like you’re part of a wax-museum exhibit.”
At the luncheon, Fred stood at the lectern between Bush and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. He leaned in to the microphone.
He looked tiny.
“I know of a little girl who was drawing with crayons in school,” he said.
He kept looking tinier.
“The teachers asked her about her drawing,” he said. “And the little girl said, ‘Oh, I am making a picture of God.’ The teacher said, ‘But no one knows what God looks like.’ The little girl smiled and answered, ‘They will now.’ ”
With that he asked everyone to think of their own images of God, and he began praying. He talked about listening to the cries of despair in America and about turning those cries into rays of hope.
A hush fell over the room, and he wasn’t tiny anymore. He stepped away from the lectern and darted. He was always a darter, but this was extreme. “O.K., now where the hell is Fred?” Isler asked me. We darted. We combed the building and climbed stairs. The Secret Service guys had lost sight of him, too. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Newell said.
We found him outside, next to an oak tree, motionless and relaxed. “Fred!” Isler said, exasperated. Fred said he wanted to go back to the office.
“I wasn’t about to participate in any fund-raising or anything else,” he told me later. “But at the same time I don’t want to be an accuser. Other people may be accusers if they want to; that may be their job. I really want to be an advocate for whatever I find is healthy or good. I think people don’t change very much when all they have is a finger pointed at them. I think the only way people change is in relation to somebody who loves them.”“A Granddad for Daniel,” final score for the MRN opera.Photographs by Henry Leutwyler
Unity Cemetery is two miles outside Latrobe. There’s a little church on it, Unity Chapel, that Fred’s father helped organize a campaign to restore in the 1950s. Fred’s buried in the back, inside the family mausoleum. Four marble steps, four marble columns, a sharp-pitched roof, a brass door, gleaming stained glass. From that spot, the mountains stretch in all directions, green and blue and streaks of vermilion. I peeked inside and read the names on the marble walls. I said hi to his mom and his dad, as you do. I said, “Oh, Fred.” I did not look at the space reserved for Joanne. I turned around and took a long breath of the mountain air, and I remembered a bright green lawn. Fred barefoot. His first grandson, Alex, was 3. His toes. “This little piggy went to market.” Alex squealing with delight. Me and Fred lying in the grass. It’s probably the closest I ever felt to him. He wasn’t asking me questions about me. He wasn’t taking my picture. He wasn’t making my mind do back flips. He was just Grandpa on a fabulous spring day.
Recently someone asked me if I thought my friendship with Fred had any impact on my life now. I said that I probably think of him, or of something he taught me, every single day. I suppose that’s a weird thing to say about an old friend. But I know that anything worthwhile I do as a parent is rooted in Fred’s teaching about tending soil. The same goes for anything good I do as a teacher, at the same university, in the very same classrooms where the darkness once fell over me. I’ve been back awhile now, working to create an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are. I don’t want to superimpose anything on anybody. A lot of this — all of this — is just tending soil. It’s not the kind of thing you read in the pedagogy journals. It’s not really a thing at all.
But it’s all connected. The soil, the atmosphere, the fundamental human urge to create. It all goes to Fred’s notion of a gap between what is and what might be. For Fred, creating is an expression of optimism, an act of faith. Faith in progress, in invention, in some basic urge to constantly make life better. Perhaps the best way to understand just how radical his message would be is to think of what happens when soil isn’t tended. A barren landscape. A toxic soil. An atmosphere devoid of love and of acceptance, where a person’s internal wars go unnoticed and unattended. What sort of creations come out of those people, stuck in that place? A world war? Walls? Children in cages.
“I think that how we were first loved — or not — has a great deal to do with what we create and how,” Fred once told me.
He put it this way in a speech:
“There are those of us who have been deprived of human confidence. Those who have not been able to develop the conviction that they have anything of value within. Their gap is rather a chasm. And they most often despair of creating any bridges to the land of what might be. They were not accepted as little children. … They were never truly loved by any important human other. … And so it seems to me that the most essential element in the development of any creation, any art or science, must be love. A love that begins with the simple expressions of care for a little child.
“When people help us to feel good about who we are, they are really helping us to love the meaning of what we create.”
The speech was a commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University. After Fred delivered the last line, he began singing his song “It’s You I Like,” and hundreds of students joined in. Costa was there on the piano, going full-on rhapsodic.
It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear It’s not the way you do your hair But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now The way down deep inside you Not the things that hide you Not your degrees They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like. Every part of you Your skin, your eyes, your feelings Whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember Even when you’re feeling blue That it’s you I like It’s you yourself It’s you — It’s you I like!
Fred told the crowd that he wrote that song “for the child in all of us — that part of us which longs to help in the creation of a new and better world.”
A local opera company in Pittsburgh recently decided to stage two one-act operas written by Fred. Over the course of his life, he wrote 13 of them. He would weave them into a week of programming. It didn’t matter that the puppets could barely sing; the point was the process of making an opera, not the performance. When I thought about the company’s putting this show together with actual opera singers, I thought, Huh, will these things hold up? I don’t think Fred intended for them to hold up. Joanne told me she was going, and she said she would save me a seat.
I entered the lobby, and it was like a Who’s Who of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So many familiar faces, all of us a kind of saggy version of our former selves. Newell was there with his wife, Nan, and “Mrs. McFeely,” a.k.a. Betsy Seamans and her husband, Joe. Hedda was there, and props people came, and various support-staff members I recognized from the WQED cafeteria. Everyone seemed excited or maybe nervous. Fred never intended these things for an adult audience.
Joanne was wearing one of her signature pretty flower-print tops. She clutched her purse in front of her like a demure, dainty lady, wearing her white curls like a dainty lady; she is always sporting this same demure, dainty-lady look that does not prepare you for her giant laugh, her occasional potty mouth and her fierce intelligence.
She and I found our seats in the middle of the theater, and we sat there staring at the watercolor Fred on the cover of the program.
“I don’t think I’ve seen this one,” she said.
“It’s a good likeness,” I said.
“I think it’s one of those photos they blur up to make it look like a watercolor,” she said, holding it up and peering over her glasses.
Just then the house lights went down. A thundering piano rolled into, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” invoking the spirit of Costa, who died more than two decades ago.
Joanne smiled broadly, and she reached out and held my hand. True to form, she led the audience with her booming laugh as the first opera, “Spoon Mountain,” went crazily on. Purple Twirling Kitty twirled her silver spoon and sang of her fear of Wicked Knife and Fork. “This is so ridiculous!” she cried out. “Oh, my goodness, Fred!” Then as soon as Wicked Knife and Fork finished her aria in which she revealed the source of her darkness — “A spoon! All I ever wanted was a spoon! A spoon! A spoon!” — Joanne clapped feverishly shouting: “Brava! Brava! Brava!”
At intermission I ran into Newell. He asked me what I thought of Spoon Mountain, and I said that I got lost in parts. He told me that the next opera, “Windstorm in Bubbleland,” was originally produced and directed by my brother-in-law Hugh. “So if you thought ‘Spoon Mountain’ was wild,” he said, “now you’ll see Fred’s imagination really let loose.” He said Hugh encouraged Fred to fly. I said that was funny because I always thought it was the other way around.
Then Newell told me something else I never knew. He said one thing Fred talked to him about was the idea of one day writing a stage musical. A real musical for an adult audience. It was a lifelong dream. He said Fred talked about getting started on it. But then came the cancer. “And he was gone so quick.”
That hit me. The idea that Fred believed he had another act. That he had more creating to do. Maybe a lot more. People often wonder what Fred would think of the world today, which can seem so far removed from his vision of bridges, love, a healthy atmosphere. Maybe he would have despaired and given up on it, people say. I don’t think so. Just the opposite. I think right now, Fred would be feverishly creating bridges and bridges and bridges.
I kept thinking about it as I sat in the dark next to Joanne and we all went to Bubbleland. “There’s never, ever any trouble in Bubbleland,” the TV anchor sang. Except there was. It had to do with a windstorm coming and a bad guy promising to spray sweaters on bubbles, and there was a hummingbird named Hildegard trying to warn everybody, and it felt as if we were tumbling through the looking glass into one man’s imagination that knew no bounds, all of us in that theater laughing and shaking our heads and nudging each other. What? Spray sweaters? And Joanne with her best guffaw. I felt as if we all got to visit Fred where he lived most fully. An artist of goat poems and wicked knives and forks fearlessly embracing the absurd, singing with abandon.
Jeanne Marie Laskas is a contributing writer for the magazine whose last article was the basis for her most recent book, “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger and Hope.”