Our Own Mister Rogers

I recently watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the movie with Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. The striking thing about it was how quickly the details – those garish blue-green curtains, the gentle ding ding of the trolley, the cardigan closet – took me right back to my view from the braided rug in our TV room. I vividly remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with my mom, whose love for Mister Rogers took root in me over the course of many episodes and is still going strong.

Strangely, until I’d seen the Tom Hanks movie and the recent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I had forgotten about the music. Not so much the songs with words about “many ways to say I love you,” but those faint, jazzy piano chords that serve as the show’s backdrop. I hadn’t realized how hungry my ears had been for that gentle musical commentary.

Like so many people of my generation, my heart has a trolley-shaped place reserved for Mister Rogers. He was unique in his sensitivity to the feelings of others, children especially. I have known just a handful like him, such as my friend Mary Ann, a former kindergarten teacher with a special gift for relating to children.

Watching the movie, I remembered another Mister Rogers-type of guy, Rev. Bernie. Bernie was a salt-of-the-earth, joyful, soft-spoken man. He wore a small wooden cross around his neck and smiled with an endearing gap between his front teeth.

Years ago, Rev. Bernie would occasionally give the children’s sermon at church. The moment he took the microphone, the congregation would grin collectively, anticipating the hand-puppet that would soon appear.

It was a little, white cat with a high-pitched voice named Casey the I-Care Cat. I never thought to ask Bernie if he was inspired by Mister Rogers’ Daniel Tiger, but the resemblance, for me, was real. Casey had a single message, one moral for every story – a message that is useful every single day.

He would set up the sermon by talking with Casey the cat, who had managed to do something selfish or impulsive. See, the cat didn’t always take others’ feelings or God’s commandments into account before acting. Casey’s lesson was always the Five T’s: Take the Time to Think.

Rev. Bernie, I mean Casey, would say these slowly, as Bernie counted on his fingers to show there were not six, not four, but five T’s.

I don’t know if Bernie originated Casey just for children’s sermons or if he used the cat-puppet in his career as an educator. Either way, the message works, whether in church or school or anywhere. I bet those kids sitting at his feet remember Casey’s Five T’s all these years later.

I know I won’t soon forget: Take the time to think.

There’s a picture of Mister Rogers on the bulletin board above my desk. In it, he’s holding one of his puppets, King Friday, and entertaining a group of kids. Underneath is a quote from Fred Rogers, “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.” In Bernie’s unassuming, humble way, he was a hero of the faith to those who knew him. He was like our own Mister Rogers.

Rev. Bernie passed away last summer. My heart aches for his sweet wife Ann; how she must miss him.

Now he’s seen Jesus face to face. He doesn’t need to take the time to think. Now he knows.

Rev Bernie