It’s hard to understate the importance of Fred Rogers to American culture. The iconic host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught progressive lessons about empathy and acceptance at a time when people’s differences were still being played for cheap laughs.
He died in 2003 at age 74, but the past couple of years have seen something of a Rogerssaince. The 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explored the TV host’s life and career, and this year’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood sees Rogers getting the Hollywood treatment. In an inspired bit of casting, it features Tom Hanks donning the red sweater to play Rogers.
In fact, Hanks can trace his participation back to one specific moment: He points to a clip from a 1981 episode in which a cheerful boy in a motorized wheelchair came to visit. “It made me bawl my eyes out,” the 63-year-old actor recently told Vanity Fair. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m in the movie.”
That boy’s name was Jeff Erlanger, and he lived in Madison. He died in 2007 at age 36, but left a legacy of public service and activism that will long outlive him.
“It’s not what I can’t do…”
Jeffrey Clay Erlanger was born in California in 1970 but moved here with his family when he was one year old. His father Howard became a law professor at UW and still teaches there part-time. At seven months old, young Jeff was diagnosed with a spinal tumor that cost him the use of both his arms and legs, rendering him quadriplegic. But even though Erlanger would be in and out of hospitals his entire life, he remained remarkably positive.
Even as a child, Howard said that Jeff never dwelled on his condition. “It doesn’t matter what I can’t do — what matters is what I can do” would become his philosophy. And that philosophy clearly left an impression on Fred Rogers, who met Jeff before the latter underwent spinal surgery at age five. (see picture above)
“My parents asked me what it was I wanted to do before the surgery,” Erlanger said in 2002. “They were expecting me to say that I wanted to go to an amusement park. My answer was that I wanted to meet Mr. Rogers.”
It would not be the only time the two would cross paths.
“It’s You I Like”
In 1981, a 10-year-old Erlanger was invited to appear in what would become one of the most memorable segments in the 33-year run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The scene was unscripted and shot in one 10-minute take. Jeff showed his electric wheelchair to Mr. Rogers and explained why it was necessary. They talked about parents, doctors and what to do when you feel sad. They even sang one of Rogers’ best-known songs, “It’s You I Like,” and the host changed the lyrics on the fly to illustrate that Erlanger’s “fancy chair” didn’t matter. It was all about who was sitting in it.
The segment was one of Rogers’ favorites, according David Newell (better known as mailman Mr. McFeely on the show). “Fred would use it in speeches that he did for many years, about overcoming obstacles and feeling comfortable about yourself,” Newell told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2007.
Despite it only being a brief appearance, Erlanger and Rogers’ bond was forged deeply. Erlanger was brought out as a surprise guest when Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999. Elated, Rogers ran toward the stage and embraced the adult Erlanger like an old friend. (I’m not crying, you are.)
“A minimum investment in ego”
Erlanger’s can-do attitude permeated his whole life. He graduated from James Madison Memorial High School, and then from Edgewood College with a degree in political science. As an adult, he interned for both Tammy Baldwin and Russ Feingold. And his legacy here in Madison is more than cemented.
He was highly active in local politics, serving on the city’s Economic Development Commission and chairing the Commission for People with Disabilities and the Community Living Alliance’s Board of Directors. In 2002, he ran unsuccessfully for Common Council. Perhaps his most lasting accomplishment is pushing for handicapped-accessible taxis in Madison, which he was inspired to do after a trip to Jamaica.
“He had a minimum investment in ego,” former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz told The Cap Times in 2007. “It was always just about making progress.”
In 2000, Erlanger even saved the life of a woman in Boston he met in an AOL chatroom who had slit her wrists. By working with both Madison and Boston police, Erlanger was able to get her the help she needed.
Jeff Erlanger was a remarkable person, undeterred even in the face of odds that would make most people throw up their hands in defeat. To this day, the Jeffrey Clay Erlanger Award for Civility in Public Discourse is given out each year to a Madisonian who most closely embodies the late activist’s ethos. And those values can be traced back to Erlanger’s famous visit to the Land of Make-Believe: quite simply, be a good neighbor.