1987. It wasn’t quite George Orwell’s 1984 or all of its Orwellian predictions; but it was certainly the beginning of an unbelievable future, at least for me. In 1987, I was hired as the first head of human resources for one of the largest public television production centers in the country. We produced the National Geographic Specials, Visions of the Constitution, Equal Justice Under Law, Anne of Green Gables, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, The Universe Within, Pennsylvania’s only truly independent show about state government, the People’s Business, and a host of other award-winning series including the popular Pittsburgh History Series narrated by Rick Sebak and numerous individual productions. We were the center of the country for the national Literacy Project. We owned two public television stations, a public radio station and produced the city’s only magazine. We were also the longtime home to the highly respected production center for one of the most beloved public television icons – Mister Rogers and his Family Communications Inc. production company. We were WQED – Channel 13, WQED – Channel 16, WQED – FM and Pittsburgh Magazine. With offices in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New York, Harrisburg and Florida, we were a major player in the world of public television and one of the four largest PBS stations in the entire country, along with WGBH in Boston, WNET in New York and KCET in Los Angeles.
Looking back, there was something different and more profound about WQED because we were the physical home of Mister Rogers. In my first two weeks on the job, I wanted to sneak into the studio to watch his “live” production. Little did I know at the time literally hundreds of his shows existed on tape and nothing was done live. I remember coming home late one evening and my son, Brian, asked me if Mister Rogers had a bad day. I said, “No, I don’t think so, why do you ask?” Here was the predicament to a very young child -- at that time, Mister Rogers Neighborhood shows aired at different times on two different stations. My son commented, “well this morning he looked very young and this afternoon he looked old” – and thought that meant Mister Rogers had a bad day. How profound is that to most of us today!
It didn’t take long to run into Fred. Several weeks into my career there I stepped onto the elevator at the same time as Fred. Just me. Just him. This larger than life man standing right in front of me. I remember the angst I had at the time and the sensibility that Fred had of the moment. I remember saying, “Mister Rogers, it is so good to meet you! I’m Dave Baker, the new head of human resources for WQED!” Fred, in true fashion, reached out his hand and said, “it is very good to meet you David, it would be good to meet you again when we can spend some time speaking.” And a moment later we were on his floor and he said, “I hope you have a great day David” and got off the elevator. I couldn’t wait to get to my office and call my wife – “you won’t believe who I met today!” And so, it began.
Periodically I would stop down to spend a few moments with Fred and got to know him fairly well. Truth is, the person you saw on television was exactly as he appeared in person. No exaggeration whatsoever. He was genuine, gifted, calm, and had a presence about him that was truly extraordinary. You could tell he was always thinking about how he could communicate and comfort and demonstrate, no, more, how we could all become a model of how to deal with our most precious gifts, our children. He was worried about the challenges growing up in a daily accelerating world with personal challenges, and television, and economies, and the dwindling family unit and everything else that would affect the most vulnerable, the littlest children. Funny thing is he never shied away from any hard topic. And he found a way to communicate some of the most difficult topics to kids very regularly. Divorce, death, disabilities, learning challenges, family issues, you name it he addressed it. You see, once you got to know Fred you came to understand there was one thing that was most important to him -- the care and love of little children. He was a gift to all of us, and for those of us who were lucky enough to have gotten to know him a little more than others, he was a friend. A model of serenity and courage with a gentle yet professional wisdom that wasn’t scripted or fake, it was Rogersian. A few years ago, one of our good friends and a former WQED Executive, Donna Mitroff, wrote a book with her husband, Ian Mitroff - Fables and the Art of Leadership: Applying the Wisdom of Mister Rogers to the Workplace . . . an exceptional perspective on applying Fred’s insight in managing ourselves and our employees. Well worth the investment.
I am pleased and honored to have been a very small part of the living, working neighborhood where Mister Rogers spent decades of his life. I’m duly blessed to have known him and to have called him - with great fondness - my neighbor.
p.s. Those of you who know me personally know that this time of year for more than twenty years I have always worn a cardigan sweater – they used to tease me about it when I worked in venture capital. Truth is I wear a cardigan to remind me daily of the simple wisdom of Fred. The one he gave me so many years ago is one of my greatest treasures!
I wish you well,