I'm Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers
By Tim Madigan
Gotham , 208 pp., $26
When it comes to Fred Rogers, I have a bias. When I was living in Pittsburgh, I worked for the TV station where Rogers was the star. While I never met him, I did have a chance to see the volume of mail he got, and the great surprise was that his biggest fans were the elderly. Their fan mail was especially poignant, thanking him for making them feel loved, needed , and special.
`` I'm Proud of You : My Friendship With Fred Rogers " is a surprising little book; instead of a work of wince-worthy Hallmark-heavy sentimentality, it's an account that succeeds even when it seems it shouldn't. Sure, it's a little overly familiar in concept, another `` Tuesdays With Morrie " setup, where a younger, confused man (in this case prize-winning journalist Tim Madigan, author of `` The Burning " ) becomes a disciple of a man nearing the end of his days. According to the formula, both grow and change as the unlikely friendship builds into a strong alliance.
Madigan met Rogers when he was profiling him for a Texas newspaper, and was startled to discover that Rogers wanted to keep in touch. Rogers's easy openness made it easy to express all the buried emotions Madigan was harboring, including feelings about a shattering marriage and a difficult relationship with a dying brother. The deeper Madigan dug into his own past, the more he began to realize that the one thing he needed was to feel that someone was proud of him. And Fred Rogers was just the man to do it. Signing his letters to Madigan ``IPOY" (I'm proud of you), Rogers made Madigan feel that he was the one doing Rogers the real favor by being his friend. Clearly a father figure, Rogers helped Madigan through his marital rift and the searing cancer death of his brother, a man who also had a radical transformation for the better, thanks to Rogers's magic. Through the friendship, Madigan began to understand his own life, his cold relationship with his father, and his constant battle with the negative emotions he dubs ``the furies."
``I'm Proud of You" reproduces their letters and e-mails of ``unconditional regard," and the chapter headings are in Rogers's own hand. There are lots of inspirational messages throughout, and Madigan begins to get downright reverential, almost to an uncomfortable degree. The two men remained close until Rogers's death, on Feb. 27 , 2003.
The book is not treacle by any means. In the most revealing sections, Madigan explores how Rogers never strayed from whom or what he was, and how Rogers took great pleasure even in comedian Eddie Murphy's mocking portrayal of him. At a Hollywood function where he had to follow a foulmouthed act by comic Drew Carey , the offended Rogers was at a loss what to do. In the end, he simply asked everyone present to take a moment and think about the people who had ``loved them into being," and within moments, he had the audience dissolved into tears.
Fred Rogers was truly a one-of-a-kind personality. Yes, the book can get a little soggy in places, and yes, it's familiar. But it is also a loving testament to the power of friendship and to a most remarkable man. Goodbye, Fred, we'll miss you. And thank you for this book.
Caroline Leavitt's latest novel is `` Girls in Trouble. " She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.