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Commencement Address by Hedda Sharapan

Public Relations
Posted: Monday Dec 16, 2013


(The following is the complete text of the commencement address, “What We Can Learn from the Times Fred Rogers Said, ‘Stop the Tape’,” by Hedda Sharapan, director of early childhood initiatives for The Fred Rogers Company, at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013 in the Robert S. Carey Student Center, Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa. She was also honored with the conferral of an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.)

I am very humbled by this honor, and I thank the good people at Saint Vincent College that I’ve had the pleasure to get to know over the years – Archabbot Douglas, Brother Norman, Brother David and the wonderful staff at The Fred Rogers Center – especially Rita Catalano, Cindy Scarpo and Emily Uhrin. It’s amazing to think this is the 10th anniversary of the Center. I remember when it was just a gleam in the eyes of Archabbot Douglas and Fred…and under the great leadership it’s become a nationally recognized institution in early learning and media.

I also congratulate the graduates and their family and friends for all that it’s taken for you to be at this wonderful moment in your lives. Fred Rogers had a song, “You’ve got to do it. You can wish for things, but it takes real work to make those dreams come true.” You did it! Congratulations!

Before I begin, maybe I should ask, “How many of you have seen Mister Rogers?” Whenever I ask that, I’m reminded of a boy who really did see Fred Rogers in real life…and couldn’t believe his eyes. He looked up at him and asked, “Mister Rogers, how did you get out of the TV?” His question gives me a metaphor for what I’d like to do this morning – I’d like to take Fred Rogers out of the TV and share with you some life lessons I learned from Fred’s decisions in the studio. You see, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t just for children. It’s full of life lessons for all of us. And I want to share them with you through two behind-the-scenes stories – through videos.

To give you a little background, Fred wrote all the scripts (more than 900 in all). He composed all the music for the program (about 200 songs). He worked almost all the puppets. And he was also essentially the executive producer. That meant it was up to him to say whether we were going to keep what we had just taped and go on…or if he wanted to stop the tape and do it again.

So here’s the first story – on video. You’re watching Ella Jenkins, beloved folksinger with Mister Rogers and Chuck Aber (a regular “neighbor” on the program).

Right after that, Fred came down off the set, as he always did, and we all waited as he watched the TV monitor that showed what he had just taped. Now, we didn’t tape MRN from the beginning to the end. We taped it in short segments which our editor put together afterwards. So it wasn’t such a big deal to tape a segment over again. What was his decision?

Now we all understood that to that decision Fred brought all of his background – TV production from his early days at NBC, music composition from his college days at Rollins, the ministry, and his child development graduate work…with all of that background, what was his decision?
This he left in!

Think about the messages in it – Did you see? Fred couldn’t get it! He was the most prominent person there – and he couldn’t get it! And he allowed us to see that – to see his humanness! It’s a great reminder that nobody can do everything – that nobody’s perfect. There are no perfect parents, there are no perfect children. We have to be able to forgive others – and ourselves (which, Fred once said – that might be the hardest of all).
Now I have to admit that I am a bit concerned about saying “nobody’s perfect” to nurse anesthetists – maybe one of you may be sitting at my side during surgery! But maybe it’s even more important to you – because as a patient, I know we’re only human…we all make mistakes…and I hope you’re willing to check your work twice, just to make sure.

The other message in it is how hard it is to learn something new! Fred could have easily said, “I can’t do this…I’ll just watch.” That’s not what he did. He kept working at it…and even after she left! Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford – when you say to children “You’re really smart…or you’re really good at that.” When they face a challenge, what do they do? They give up! They don’t want to think they’re not smart – or not good at something. In today’s world, what we’re applauding is persistence. Just to give an example – I’m really grateful for the person who worked on my computer recently…kept at it until he got it. So that’s not just for college or graduate work – that’s for life…for your work life, family and friends.

But that’s not the end of it. There’s another side of that message from Fred. Here’s the second story – on video. It’s an early one – Fred putting up a tent.

Obviously that one was an outtake. It didn’t make it on the program – it did make it on the Bloopers! I went to the video library to see how he finally did it. Remember, on that outtake he came onto the porch with the tent in his hand. Well, on the actual program, he came out with nothing…and said, “I’d like to show you what we have set up out here in the yard.” That, of course meant that the studio crew put the tent up.

And what an important lesson that is…In your journey beyond Saint Vincent, you’ll be called upon to put up many tents. Some of them – in fact, many of them – may be too tough to put up alone. What Fred was telling us – was when you realize you can’t put up the tent, go get some help. In fact, he used to say, “It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. That’s a sign of real strength.”

Maybe these messages of Fred’s will stay with you, too, as you move on from Saint Vincent, from this caring neighborhood…and build your own caring neighborhood of colleagues, family and friends.

Nobody’s perfect – keep working at it.

But trust your intuition…when you feel the tent is too tough to put up alone, get some help.

In closing I want to wish you many beautiful days in your neighborhood…as you journey from here.


Photo: Hedda Sharapan 


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