“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.” — Mister Rogers
As America reeled from the news of the shootings at Sandy Hook, parents looked for a way to explain the unexplainable to their children. But they also needed an explanation for themselves — someone to help process the magnitude of what it means to live in a world where 20 children can be gunned down amid storybooks and crayons.
That person was — and will always be — Fred Rogers, known to children everywhere as Mister Rogers. After 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting shared the children’s television host’s quote about helpers, along with an image of a tiny boy cradling Mister Rogers’ face in his hands, each looking lovingly into each other’s eyes, it began to go viral on Facebook. As of this writing, it has been “liked” more than 48,000 times, and shared more than 88,000 times. It has more than 1,500 comments, many of which echo this sentiment, expressed by Dianne Quigley: “WE can be the helpers...by creating a fabric of love, generosity, understanding and compassion. Smile and help someone today.”
Rogers’ quote and the image even closed Sunday’s edition of “Meet the Press.” David Gregory offered a prayer for the families affected: “May God give you strength and at least you can know there is a country full of helpers here to catch you when you feel like falling.”
Mister Rogers spent his whole life as one of the most prominent of those helpers. My father knows — he’s the one who took the photo.
My dad, Jim Judkis, took photos for Mister Rogers for nearly 25 years until the TV host’s death in 2003. This image came from their very first session together in 1978, a shoot for People magazine. It was taken at what was then called the Memorial Home for Crippled Children, now renamed The Children’s Institute, in Pittsburgh, where Rogers’ show was filmed. The viral image on Facebook cropped out some children in wheelchairs; the full image appears above.
Rogers was visiting the school to spend some time with the children, and my dad remembers the kids’ first encounter with him.
“This boy immediately went right up to him and held out his hands to touch him, and he said ‘Mister Rogers!’ In total awe. Total awe. And that was the moment of the photo,” said Judkis. “I think it shows the pure attraction, the love ... it’s like he’s seeing God, touching God.”
If Mister Rogers were still alive, Judkis is sure that he would be doing anything he could to help the children of Newtown. “In my opinion, Fred is close to a saint,” he said.
“There’s a real connection happening in that photo, and a helper is someone who really connects,” said Judkis. “Those were very brilliant words that he said, and the picture of Fred personifies the words.”
When my dad was told that the quote and his image had gone viral, he considered the two to be a perfect match. He was grateful that the words and photo could bring people comfort.
“I think that the power comes in the pure simplistic power of a black and white image. Photography has this ability to crystallize the infinite, in a way,” he said. “I think it went viral because ... it focuses on the positive. It’s a way of leading you out of the bad towards the good.”
UPDATE, Jan. 7, 2013: The story of the boy in the photo.