Decked out in a red zip-up sweater and sneakers, retired first-grade teacher Todd Cole returned to Laurel Elementary School on Wednesday, boarded a trolley and told first graders and kindergartners about his friend — Mr. Fred Rogers.
Aboard a trolley bus, provided by the New Castle Area Transit Authority, and surrounded with Mr. Rogers’ pictures and sayings proclaiming, “You are Special”, “Look for the Helpers” and “Welcome to my Neighborhood,” Cole told the children of the special friendship he developed over the years with the public television icon whom he corresponded with for many years. Cole received his final letter from Mr. Rogers in December 2002. Rogers died in February 2003.
“I wrote him a letter and he wrote back,” Cole told the children. “I wrote to him again and my students wrote to him too.”
The pair wound up exchanging letters for many years.
Cole, along with the trolley and the focus on the PBS children’s programming pioneer and creator and star of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was part of a weeklong Mr. Rogers theme at Laurel, prior to the release of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. The movie, filmed in Pittsburgh, is to be released in theaters Friday.
“I’ve already got my ticket. I’m going to see it in Boardman,” Cole said, leading the way to the first grade and kindergarten wing of the elementary school where a cut-out trolley was adorned with pictures and quotes of Fred Rogers and his friends, Daniel Tiger, King Friday XIII and X the Owl were on display. For the “Kindness Counts” bulletin board, students wrote on red sweaters how they showed kindness to a friend. Responses included “Share a Smile” and “Help someone up if they fall down.”
Aboard the trolley, Stephanie Hennon, who now teaches first grade in the same classroom used by Cole for 34 years, provided a CD player so Cole could play his Mr. Rogers theme music for the children.
Now retired, Cole teaches educational psychology on a part-time basis at Westminster College. He has also written several books.
Once on the trolley, he read a written poetic script to the children. He made it interactive to keep the kids’ attention.
“Each time I say ‘I have a friend named Fred,’ I want you to hold up your sign,” he told the students. Cole had made small, colorful signs reading, “I have a friend named Fred.” A dime was taped to the back of each sign.
“This is part of the story,” he explained.
Many years ago, after the two exchanged letters regularly, Cole said, he visited Rogers at the WQED studio in Pittsburgh. He got to hide behind a tree in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and hold the script Mr. Rogers read while talking to X the Owl while the show was filmed.
He was later invited to Rogers’ cluttered office where the two sat and chatted.
“The next letter he sent me included a dime taped to the back of the note card,” Cole said. “Apparently he’d found the dime in the chair I’d been sitting on and he mailed it back to me saying, ‘This belongs to you.’
“He ended the letter saying that my visit meant a lot to him and he hoped that we could be close friends forever.”
Cole also read the children Rogers’ book “Extraordinary Friends.” That story celebrated the key words — Special, Different, Loved and Friend — all of which Cole printed on oversized notecards which he held up for the children to see.
“He was ahead of his time,” Cole said or Rogers. “His show aired during the Vietnam War. He talked to children about war and death and divorce. He chose every word carefully. Every word had direct meaning.
“After 9/11 he essentially came out of retirement to talk to the children,” he said. “Mr. Rogers had 1,000 shows in syndication, but he came out to talk about being afraid and looking for help. That is where his helpers came from. He told children if they need to feel safe, look for a helper, a parent, grandparent or teacher. Sometimes you need help and a friend to care for you.”
Cole, who said he has more than 100 letters from Rogers that were sent over the years, said he first wrote to Rogers after a student died of meningitis and he was left without words.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers responded.
“He was a sweet, gentle man. He was exactly what you saw on television,” Cole said. “He spoke to children. He said they should learn how to deal with their feelings to become good people and that you need to be kind to people you meet. He said the more you know someone, the more you understand them.”
Over the years, Cole said, the two bonded over a shared love of animals and the ocean. Cole told Rogers of the death of his dog, Shadow. Rogers responded in a letter saying his 21-year-old cat had to be assisted by the vet “to enter heaven.”
Rogers wrote that he spent time vacationing at his home in Nantucket and visiting with his children in Florida. Cole enjoyed similar vacations.
“I told him I enjoyed the quiet time in the car driving to the beach,” Cole said. “He wrote back speaking on the importance of silence and that we should teach children to appreciate silence.
“He later sent me a speech he’d delivered and said ‘I can hear you saying this. The speech ended, ‘There are three ways to ultimate success. The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.’”
Cole told the children Mr. Rogers may be gone, “But his message lives on on television and in books.”
As the children departed the trolley, Cole helped them down the steps. Many of the children hugged him.
Hennon, a close friend of Cole, said she knew of his friendship with Mr. Rogers and thought the tie in was great due to the upcoming movie. She added that Cole is an education consultant with WFMJ and has done some Mr. Rogers programming prior to the movie
“We do a Dr. Seuss week, we thought why not? Last week was Kindness Day and this week we felt we could do a Mr. Rogers week in conjunction with American Education Week.”
She added that the children had been shown some “vintage Mr. Rogers” to introduce them to him.
“We got excited about doing this and it never hurts to spread kindness,” she said.
She said she thought the trolley was an excellent tie in and thrilled with the transit authority making it available for the afternoon. The trolley will be in the Light-Up Parade on Saturday, hauling Head Start students and surrounded by Westminster college students handing out trolley-shaped cookies
At the close of each session, Cole asked the children what they would remember about the day, thinking they might recall that they got to sit in a trolley or his props which included a toy trolley and a Mr. Rogers Lunch box.
One student showed him he had not wasted his time “We learned to be kind,” he said.