In Memory of Fred Rogers: “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: A profile of Fred Rogers, or as we know him from the Neighborhood, from childhood, Mister Rogers. Today marks the 10th anniversary of his death.

There are some stories we can analyze all we want, but sometimes there are stories in which, no matter how much we pick them apart, what’s on the surface for us to appreciate is more telling than any analysis.

This story is one of them. It’s my favorite profile of all time, by Tom Junod in Esquire, 1998. I could end right here, and I think I’ve already done enough to explain why you need to read this story.

But I’ll go on about what I like best about it, anyway:

First and foremost: the tone. Dig back into your childhood memory and try to remember what Mister Rogers sounded like on television—that simple talk easy for children to understand. Defining words, addressing why things happen, why they are the way they are. Saying so much with so little. This is in Tom Junod’s writing here, too. He adopts a tone that Mister Rogers would use if he were the one telling the story aloud.  There are storytelling qualities in here that not only hook us into this long piece, but remind us of our childhood just as Mister Rogers does himself: Junod begins each story of a child whom Mister Rogers has, quite literally, saved ,or any story from Mister Rogers’ past, with “Once upon a time.” And he defines words for us like Mister Rogers would: “He was thunderstruck. Thunderstruck means that you can’t talk, because something has happened that’s as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble.”

But perhaps what’s most riveting about this profile is Tom Junod’s personal tie to it.

There’s a scene that Junod highlights, the one when Mister Rogers accepts his Daytime Emmy and tells the audience in his short speech, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are?” At first the audience is unsure if Mister Rogers is serious. But within seconds, the audience is in tears. Junod illustrates this power that Mister Rogers has over “all his vanquished children,” as Junod writes, in guiding them in remembering that at one time, they were children, too. He has this power over Junod, over me and you and all readers whether they had a happy childhood or not. Junod acknowledges it in his own anecdote about a stuffed animal he once had as a kid, “Old Rabbit.” He begins with the night he learned how to pray—when he tossed Old Rabbit out the window then prayed to God he would find it:

“ONCE UPON A TIME, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how.”

All throughout, learning to pray becomes a theme. Mister Rogers teaches others to pray, and Junod highlights what praying is to Mister Rogers. There’s a question that comes up once or twice in the story, subtly, not immediately seeming substantial: “What is grace?” We don’t realize the significance of this until the story’s end. (And you should stop here if you want to find out for yourself.)

The reason this story is so riveting is because, not only does Junod bring us so close to Rogers on a level few people have ever seen, Junod learns something about himself that he had been trying to learn since he threw Old Rabbit out the window in the lead of his story: He learns what it really means to pray, and he sees what grace is. He learns it from Mister Rogers, and this in itself shows the core of Mister Rogers. Junod does this without begging Mister Rogers to reveal himself and his whole life and without asking forward questions. Few profiles reach the very core of a person. This is one that does.

Do yourself a favor and read this all the way through.

And here’s to Mister Rogers.