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Essay: A Hero Among Us

Focus Features
Fred Rogers

If you grew up watching public television, the ding of a trolley and ascending piano chords may take you back to the land of Make Believe and into the television home of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood first aired in 1968 and aired first-run shows for more than 30 years.

Lake Effect essayist Linda Flashinski came to admire Mr. Rogers in the years her own children watched the television show. And when he passed away in 2003, Flashinski realized how her respect for the man turned into seeing him as a hero among us:

It was about 50 years ago when a quiet, shy man stepped onto a television set, walked through a door of that set, zipped up a cardigan sweater, sat down, tied his tennis shoes and then looked up into the camera with a sweet smile and asked children all over American to be his neighbor.

In the years when our children were young, I came to admire Mr. Rogers for his quiet demeanor, the way our young children listened intently at his kind messages, and how he modeled living life from the inside out. While I respected him back then, it was only following his death in 2003 that he became a hero to me after I read his words and realized how deeply introspective he was and how intentionally he lived his life. He was not just a quiet guy who fell into a popular television show, he was a man who decided how he would live his life so that he could make a difference for children and adults. And amazingly through the years, despite receiving every major award in television and education including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation's highest civilian award), he never lost his humility, his simple manner, or his authenticity. He was always Mr. Rogers, to the end.

This morning, I took out a little book, The World According to Mister Rogers, which his wife and friends had put together after his death. The book brings me comfort sometimes when I am sad or worried or melancholy. As I perused Mr. Rogers' quotes, they quieted me. To me today, feeling a little low, his words reminded me that, "Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness...It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it." Today, on this gray winter day, his words from many years ago gave my blue spirit a sense of peace.

I noticed something else in his words. Mr. Rogers wrote often about heroes, "Heroes are the kind of people who help all of us come to realize that 'biggest' doesn't mean 'best,' that the most important things of life are inside things like feelings and wonder and love - and that the ultimate happiness is being able sometimes, somehow to help our neighbor become a hero too."

Just as Mr. Rogers emulated his grandfather as a hero (Mr. McFeely on the show), I emulate a hero of mine, my grandmother Lavinia. Every hero is someone who brings us a message and she did that for me.

My grandmother Lavinia was born on June 15, 1883 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was a resident of Green Bay, Wisconsin and Appleton, Wisconsin, from 1932 until her death in 1961. She was married to George, my grandfather, and they had six children, my father one of them. Since Lavinia lived in northern Wisconsin, we didn't get to see her very often, but every time I did see her, she made a difference inside of me, the shy little girl she taught to laugh. I remember playing "Old Maid" with her as we ate pretzels and banana splits and joked about the characters on the cards. It was with her that I first learned to laugh so hard that tears rolled down my cheeks.

Credit Image courtesy of Linda Flashinski
Linda Flashinski's grandmother Lavinia.

For years, I have had a photo on our family room desk of grandma Lavinia in the early 1900s looking downward as the introspective young woman she was. The photo sits in the original antique, chipped black wood frame. I also own a handkerchief that my grandma Lavinia stitched when she was a little girl, a handkerchief with tiny, ornate stitching of the cursive letter "L." While the L is for her name, I think of it as joining us together. Lavinia and Linda. Sometimes if I'm sad or worried or dreamy, I carry that handkerchief around in my purse to remind me of the gift that she was to me.

Lavinia's life was sprinkled with more than its share of hardships and even of tragedy which I will not detail here. But what she taught me was this: that we really can get through hardships if we remember that life is ultimately about love, that great equalizer that reaches beyond words and into the future. That belief is what my grandma Lavinia taught me and something that has carried me through dark times. I have so many other heroes and I believe that heroes all have one thing in common - they teach us something about how to live with courage and grace in this sometimes difficult journey.

So, you may want to take a moment to think about (or write to) those who are heroes to you in this life and why. And as you do this, you might want to reflect on these words of Mr. Rogers. "Who in your life has been such a servant to you? Who has helped you love the good that grows within you? Let's just think of some of those people who have loved us and wanted what was best for us in life, those who have encouraged us to become who we are. No matter where they are, imagine how pleased those people would be to know that you thought of them right now."

A gift of words from Mr. Rogers, a hero indeed.

Lake Effect essayist Linda Flashinski lives and writes in Caledonia, Wisconsin.