Saturday, March 22, 2014


            As I set about writing this particular column, I notice that on this day – March 20th – in 1928 Frederick McFeely Rogers was born to James and Nancy Rogers in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. With a grandfather who loved music and a mother who sang and played for him, it was probably not unusual that he was playing the piano himself by the age of five, and creating marionettes as the “stars” of his own puppet shows soon afterward.
            After earning a degree in musical composition, Rogers went on to study for a career in the ministry, and was in fact ordained in the Presbyterian Church  (USA). He may not have realized it at the time, but he was destined to live out that dream of human service from a unique and as yet unimagined “pulpit”.
            As a “victim” myself of the “broadcasting bug”, I find it a compelling bit of coincidence that the first locally-produced radio program (KDKA) and the pioneer neighborhood television experiment (WQED) both took place in Pittsburgh. It was with the latter station that the young Fred Rogers was invited to perform as the puppeteer for a children’s program in 1953 – a show which soon became known as The Children’s Corner. While I could end this story right here with the well-known canard “and the rest is history”, I would be cheating my audience as well as the memory of an iconic American figure.
            Fred Rogers was not just “another” television performer, even though cited as one of the “top fifty greatest” among such an alumni, with a Peabody Award, a handful of “Daytime Emmys”, two Congressional resolutions and a Presidential Medal of Freedom to prove it.; More than any of these prestigious recognitions, Rogers will be remembered by several generations of Americans who grew up paying attention to him, as a revered and respected public model of compassion, patience and morality in an ocean of broadcasting confusion, indirection and indifference.
            In an arena in which most personalities make big money by acting out a role, Fred Rogers made a commitment early on to live the life and be the person he presented to his audience; what you saw was exactly who he was. He believed that children could see right through a lie and he refused to prostitute himself or the podium he occupied in so important a venue as children’s television. Each day for 44 years Mr.Roger’s  Neighborhood  began with Fred coming through the door, peeling off his rain coat, reaching into the closet and carefully donning then zipping up the comfortable sweater which was his trademark stage apparel. (What viewers might not have known was that each of the two dozen or so sweaters we got to see was hand-knitted for him by his own mother!)

                      A Mr. Rogers sweater on display at The Smithsonian

            Each day, his followers would hear the program’s invitation and theme song, “Won’t You be My Neighbor” sung just for them – one of more than 200 original songs written by Fred himself, in a style and with lyrics which conveyed an underlying love and respect for the children he “courted”, and which supported a simple moral message. Ever the “puppeteer”, he personally voiced most of the show’s “stars”, from “King Friday XIII”, “Queen Sara Saturday”, “X The Owl”, “Henrietta Pussycat”, “Daniel Striped Tiger” and “Larry Horse” to “Lady Elaine Fairchilde”. And every day, children were taught strategies for dealing with life’s everyday tasks and challenges, with a quiet and harmonious continuity of assuredness that wasn’t lost on the parents and adults who were just as captivated as the children.
            Fred Rogers never used tobacco or alcohol or allowed coarse language to detract from a clean lexicon. He was also a vegetarian who swam daily for exercise, and was always active in supporting initiatives designed to build a strong youth culture. Contrary to a popular myth, he was not a “sniper/hero” and never served in the military due to red-green color-blindness. The real “Mr. Rogers” died on Feb. 27th, 2003 at the age of 74, leaving behind his wife of 51 years, two children and a vast grieving public. His legacy also includes 36 children’s books and a publishing company which bears his name.

            At a time when we hear daily of an increase in childhood bullying, family dysfunction and youth suicides, I may not be alone in believing that THE WORLD NEEDS ANOTHER FRED ROGERS!

                                         Frederick McFeely Rogers in the late 1960s.

Monday, March 17, 2014


            Those warriors we refer to as our “Greatest Generation” are fast disappearing from our midst now, the last of them in their 90s. They have left a mark on all the succeeding generations who benefit in uncounted measure from what they did for us. As one who grew up in that sliver of time in which they left home, fought, sacrificed and died, I have devoted a major effort as a writer, speaker, broadcaster and story-teller in trying to say THANK YOU in every venue in which my “voice” can be heard. My affection for this quiet unassuming brotherhood of volunteer crusaders has been one of the motivating ingredients of my life, and I have done my best to pass on to those who didn’t know them as personally as I have words to explain that veneration. I believe each generation has a sacred responsibility to communicate to those who follow something of how our generation’s values were shaped and refined.
            He, about whom I choose to write today did not carry a rifle – although he elected to place himself in the midst of those who did – nor did he plan great campaigns and lead others in battle or even wear stars or bars on his uniform shirt. His name was Ernie Pyle, and his only weapon was a beat-up portable typewriter.

            Born in 1920 to a Nebraska farm family, Ernest Taylor Pyle decided two things at an early age: 1. although a good worker and a great help to his Dad, he did not wish to become a farmer, and 2, he wanted to write for a newspaper. He was just one semester short of getting his Journalism degree from Indiana University when he was offered the very kind of a job he wanted with the LaPorte Herald. Working as a reporter, then on the copy desk, with a temporary interval as an editor (which did not excite him), he eventually found his way into the Scripps Howard chain where he made a name for himself writing about the up-and-coming world of aviation.
            With an eye for the “untold story”, he was able to convince his editors into turning him loose to seek out his own subject matter, often packing his humble camping gear onto the running boards of a beat-up Model T and touring America’s back roads in search of the kind of human interest drama he would uncover in a visit to almost any main street barber shop. The readers loved it, and soon his daily columns were being carried by hundreds of newspapers across the country. Newly married, he and his young wife Jerry wore out several automobiles and any number of suit cases, pausing just long enough to supervise the building of a modest home in an area they fell in love with near Albuquerque, New Mexico.
            Ernie would have made a name for himself no matter what, but destiny had something special in mind for the skinny, unassuming guy from Nebraska. Having served in uniform briefly himself in the closing days of the First World War, he quickly volunteered to serve as a War Correspondent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and our entry into WWII, and it was in the trenches, fox holes and landing craft of front line troops in Italy, North Africa, Sicily and France that he would win the nickname “The Soldiers’ Best Friend”.
            Ernie didn’t write about grand strategy and momentous events, nor did he either glorify or soft-sell the realities of war. He wrote about his real heroes, the boys from everybody’s “next door neighborhood”; he used their real names (and censors-be-damned!) He spent his time where the action was, not in some relatively- safe and comfortable rear command post or liberated hotel room. He bathed and shaved once a week in his helmet and endured every hardship shared with the grizzled men around him. More often than not, he would be the first to arise so that he could brew the first coffee of the day and some hot rations for the war-weary men near him. He had so many close calls that he stopped keeping track, despite an increasing sense of his own mortality.
            He wrote six columns per week, and they ran in 300 weekly and as many as 400 daily newspapers around the country.  At the same time as he suffered from often-frail health himself, he worried about his frequently-hospitalized wife at home. He felt that he was falling short as a columnist and told friends he was thinking about calling it quits and going home. That year – 1944 – he won The Pulitzer Prize.
            Against the advice of close friends and his own sense of pending doom, Ernie Pyle felt impelled to visit the war in the Pacific – a very different war from the one he had left behind in Europe. The sheer brutality of the island campaign seemed overwhelming, and he had determined to leave it behind. On April 18th, 1945 in a supposedly “safe” area on the tiny island of IeShima, a bullet from a Japanese Nambu machine gun ended his life and his brilliant career.
            If there is justice on the other side of earth life, I picture Ernie in his trademark “beanie” hat surrounded by a circle of ageless warriors for whom he harbored a deep and undying love.

In a rare moment away from the front lines an Army photographer captured an image of Ernie Pyle behind the beloved CORONA portable that was his constant companion.