The way Tim Madigan tells it, he was on a routine assignment — to write a story about the impact of television violence on children. This was in the 1990s, and there was no more authoritative voice on the impact of television on children than Fred Rogers — also known as Mister Rogers.
It was supposed to be routine. It ended up being life-changing for the former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter.
On Nov. 21, Madigan will share with Hill Country residents his story about eight years of Rogers’ friendship. The talk during lunchtime at Schreiner University is being produced by The Kerrville Daily Times, as part of the newspaper’s Kerrville Kind campaign — an effort to celebrate kindness and promote neighborliness in our community.
“When I describe our friendship and what (Rogers) believed, the value of every person and the importance of being present,” Madigan said of the late Rogers, who died in 2003 at 74. “Non-judgmental kindness. These are the things that manifest in our kindness.”
Madigan’s speech will be part of several days of events tied to kindness in Kerrville. The Times will host a children’s art exhibit at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19, and two screenings of the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” at 6 and 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at Schreiner.
The art exhibit will feature creations and writing by area youth about their neighbors, neighborhood and neighborliness in our community. Art may be submitted by emailing email@example.com. Selected works will be chosen for the exhibit and for publication in The Kerrville Daily Times.
Madigan’s Nov. 21 luncheon speech will be followed by a book signing. The newspaper is also encouraging people to tell their stories about kindness and neighborliness.
“Kerrville Kind is an outgrowth of our team’s many months of conversation about mission and purpose,” Publisher Carlina Villalpando said. “Our role in the community is multifaceted — we tell the stories of our neighbors, document life in our community and serve as watch dogs and educators. But underlying everything we do is a commitment to building our community and connecting our neighbors.
This is our team’s way of celebrating community, friendship, positivity and inspiring others to join us in that cause.”
Villalpando said the team chose Madigan’s talk on Rogers because Rogers might be the epitome of what it means to be a good neighbor.
“Those who knew Fred Rogers describe him as uniquely kind and empathetic, and yet he wasn’t an ‘anything goes’ guy,” Villalpando said. “He didn’t just tolerate anything for the sake of accepting others. He was intensely disciplined and had very high standards. He insisted on excellence and doing what’s right, and yet he had this amazing capacity to show others kindness and grace. He’s an example of what I and our team want to be and what our community and world needs.”
Madigan’s visit to Kerrville is timely, because his story is similar to one that will be conveyed later this year in a movie about Rogers, starring Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks in the title role. This movie, “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” is based on a 1997 Esquire magazine article written by journalist Tom Junod, who had a similar experience and friendship with Rogers. Madigan’s talk is timed with the opening day of the feature film.
The movie’s director, Marielle Heller, however, told magazine Entertainment Weekly that she and the film’s writers found countless people who had their lives forever changed by their contact with Rogers.
“I think for a long time people thought of him as hokey, or something to be made fun of,” Heller said in a September interview with Vanity Fair. “And he did get made fun of a lot in his day, but [what he was doing] was really profound. And the impact that he had was very deep. It wasn’t flashy. It was very real.”
For Madigan he had no expectations about Rogers, never really watched Rogers’ long-running show on PBS, but knew that he was an expert in children’s television.
“The thing I remember most is that he said to me: ‘Do you know what the most important thing is?,’” Madigan recalled Rogers asking him during their first conversation. “‘Speaking to Mr. Tim Madigan on the telephone.’
“I knew that he was being completely genuine. He was with you and with you alone.”
The importance of Rogers’ message still resonates for Madigan after all of these years.
“Those were timeless,” Madigan said. “They were meant for all people.”
Roger’s message was also personal.
During the time of the 1995 interview, Madigan had years of success at the Star-Telegram, but also suffered from a deep depression. Rogers’ immediate empathy and presence allowed Madigan to open up to Rogers about his struggles, which led to a series of letters and visits between the two men for years.
“I never felt like I succeeded,” Madigan said. “So, I wrote (Rogers) a letter and I asked him ‘Would you be proud of me?’ He wrote back and said: ‘Dear Tim, the answer to your question is yes.’”
Once again, Madigan experienced another act of Rogers’ kindness, and it would repeat itself through the years, including 1997 when Madigan and his wife, Catherine, were contemplating divorce. It was correspondence with Rogers that helped him through that difficult period, empowering Madigan to connect with his wife and save his marriage.
“Fred Rogers is one of the most courageous people I’ve ever known,” Madigan said. “He was unafraid to be who he really was.”
There were many who mocked Rogers’ gentleness, brazenly questioned his sexuality and manhood and blamed him for creating a generation of entitled children, but Madigan is dismissive of those suggestions.
“Life is hard, and we go through a lot of things that we don’t want to deal with,” said Madigan, paraphrasing some of his conversation with Rogers. “We should feel free to share what’s really going on in our life.”
When Rogers died in 2003, after battling stomach cancer, Madigan was devastated — believing a man who gave so much would have more time. In 2012, Madigan finally put all of his experiences with Rogers into a book called “I’m Proud Of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers,” a title referring back to one of those first letters Madigan had written years before.
The book demonstrates the spiritual side of Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, who sustained a powerful belief in God until the day he died.
“You are a beautiful man, inside and out, and those who care about you are privileged to share your pain,” Rogers wrote in a 1997 letter as Madigan struggled with the possibility of divorce. “As for suffering, I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact, I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of ‘powerlessness.’ Join the club, we’re not in control: God is.”
At the end, Madigan is filled with words of kindness of an unexpected friend and one that has changed his life for the better.