In your notebook, in a room just outside of Mr. Rogers' suite of offices in Pittsburgh's public television station WQED, you jot a short list of must questions.
"Love," you scribble in large letters. It's the word Mr. Rogers uses or implies all the time on his Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning PBS television show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" -- to Mr. McFeely, to King Friday, to Daniel Striped Tiger to Lady Elaine Fairchild, and most especially to the camera. It's a word he's been using for 25 years to just about everybody in his neighborhood. Even his fish.
And you figure the odds are high he is likely to use it again this morning in Towson when he addresses the graduating class of Goucher College and accepts an honorary degree. And so, shrewdly, you scrawl a -- after "love" and scribble the hard-hitting "What's the big deal?"
Moments later you are ushered into his comfortable den of an office, still unaware of your folly. Even before the first words are out of your mouth, Fred Rogers -- he of the sweaters and sneakers and neighborhood of make-believe -- smiles at you with those kindly, disarming eyes of his. Before you can blink, he is handing you photos of his grandson as if you were his, well, his neighbor, asking in such a soft, priestly voice whether you've brought photos of your own family for him to see.
How disappointed he looks when you mumble that no, they're back on your desk in the office. He sinks into the cushions on one end of a sofa, and you steal a closer look at him: a trim, slightly built man of 65, straight as a chalk line and cheery, from his ever-present smile down to the crisp, multicolored bow tie beneath his chin. In person and wearing his glasses, he looks much older and grayer, but this is still the same man who this morning, over 315 PBS stations to 8 million households, sang, "It's such a good feeling to know you're alive. . . . I think I'll make a snappy new day, it's such a good feeling, a very good feeling."
You sit beside him and he passes more pictures. Back in the real world someone would surely groan "Aaagh! Snapshots!" Here, you accept them, you glory in the tiny smile on the little child in the photo, you make a mental note that from now on, in the wallet, on the hip, will be photos. Photos on top of photos.
Your notebook slips off your lap and you grab it, choosing the moment to blurt your first question, the one about love, but it leaves your mouth with such an idiotic ring.
He seems amused, his eyes twinkling, this kindly man who holds degrees in music and theology. "Well, you know the answer, don't you? There's no bigger deal than love."
You sigh because now you understand. You don't interview Mr. Rogers. You do what you do in any neighborhood: You hang out. You let the notebook fall to the floor and you sit and just talk and sometimes you ask questions, sometimes you find yourself delivering lengthy answers.
Occasionally, you even let him get in a word or two.
He lets on, for instance, that he writes his scripts not in this cozy room but in a spare office a block away. He uses an oldfangled typewriter and frequently draws inspiration for his story lines about self-esteem and respect for others from children he meets various trips.
"This boy has since died," he says, passing you a snapshot of a young boy. "But he told me he thought it would be fun if we discovered the trolley was able to go back in time. And I thought, well, yes, for someone who has leukemia, I would imagine he would like to go back."
Later this month he will tape a show with just such a plot line.
"I have had people say to me they couldn't understand 'The Neighborhood' until they had kids," he says. "And people have said to me, 'I would have never thought to talk about a bathroom drain to a child.' And when they see me do that, they get the idea that maybe that is important in childhood because they have seen children who have been afraid to take baths because they are afraid of being sucked down the bathroom drain.
"But things like that can be talked about. Margaret used to say to us, 'Anything that's human is mentionable and whatever is mentionable is manageable.' "
Margaret was Dr. Margaret McFarland, the Goucher College alumna and child psychologist who served for 30 years as Mr. Rogers' chief adviser. Though she died in 1988, "I think I've incorporated so much of who she was in here," he says, hands over his breast.
You learn quickly that he is not a man for generalizing. He won't, for example, respond to your broadside that parents lack patience. "But if we could get across the fact that parents have a new chance to grow themselves when they have children," he says instead. "They had lots of things that happened to them in their childhood -- lots of worries and scaries. And if they can allow their children to help them to get in touch with what it was like when they were that age, they have an all-new chance to grow."
"Fred is not there as a parent substitute," associate producer Hedda Sharapan tells you later. "He's there as ally. That's why he named his company Family Communications. We hope we offer something that stimulates communication within the family."
Back in his little den, Mr. Rogers has just stimulated both your eyebrows by dropping a name not heard very often around his neighborhood.
"I just finished reading a book of Leo Tolstoy's -- "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," he says, "and that's what love is about. It's the story of a man who is dying, and having a really tough time. One of his servants, just an example of unselfish love, comes in and spends extra time with him. And at the end, his wife and his son come in to his dying room and his son kisses his hand. And the end of it, to me, says that kind of forgiveness allows you to go in peace."
For some reason this brings to mind the night Mr. Rogers appeared as a guest on a network talk show hosted by Joan Rivers. He had mentioned love there as well, something along the lines that everybody wants to be loved and wants to know he or she is lovable. Ms. Rivers wisecracked and the audience chuckled. Mr. Rogers gave the nearest thing to a look of fatherly rebuke as he is capable.
"I don't think it's funny," he said. "Why can't big people talk to big people that way?"
Chagrined, Ms. Rivers replied "Because we get embarrassed."
And now, standing, bidding farewell, he offers you one for the road.
"I don't know there's anything we do that doesn't involve a very forthright expression of the feelings involved," he says. "Those who feel you can't talk about feelings are the ones who have a good deal of fear about it. But it doesn't come overnight.
"I've been in touch with the child in children for a long time. And hopefully I haven't lost touch with the child that happens to reside within me."
Or, as King Friday said the very next morning, "We learn something old every day."