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In this story from September 1980, television's "Mr. Rogers" shares the story of a grandfather who helped him believe in himself.
The rain beat relentlessly against the windshield as we sped down the highway to Mercer. Pennsylvania. Mother sat next to me in the front seat. Since leaving from Pittsburgh nearly an hour ago, we had barely said a word.
It was 1952, and Ding-Dong was dying.
Ding-Dong was my grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, my mother’s father–and one of my best friends for as long as I could remember.
He earned his nickname years ago one sunny afternoon when he plunked me down on his sturdy lap to teach me the old nursery rhyme. “Ding Dong Dell.” The name stuck.
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I was grown up now, two years out of college and working in New York for NBC television. Just yesterday Mother had telephoned me at work with the news of Ding-Dong’s illness. Well into his 80s, he’d been in a nursing home for several years. In recent months. however, his condition had worsened.
“The doctors say it’s just plain old age,” Mother had explained to me quietly. “They say he’s fading fast.” There was a long pause. “Do you think you could come home, Fred? I think we should visit him as soon as possible.”
I made plans to fly from New York to Pittsburgh that evening.
In one sense, it was good to get out of the city. Lately it seemed that nothing had been going right. When I first graduated from college and arrived at NBC, I was a starry-eyed idealist–bursting with enthusiasm for the potential I felt that television held not only for entertaining, but for helping people.
I was particularly interested in children’s programming. But these were the early days of television and there didn’t seem to be much interest in such things.
So my goals seemed to be shifting–and this bothered me. I really didn’t know where I was going, or why. My self-confidence had sunk to near-zero. And never had I felt so far away from God.
I’d taken to stopping by St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue for morning prayer before going to work. Mostly, I prayed for guidance. But I was still uncertain and confused...
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“Fred,” my mother interrupted my thoughts as our car continued on the wet highway. “He might not know you.”
“What?” I asked.
“Your grandfather,” she answered. “He’s all mixed-up. He doesn’t know what day it is. Sometimes he doesn’t even know where he is.”
I felt my throat tighten. Poor Ding-Dong.
“But he is happy,” Mother went on. “And he loves to watch television.”
“Yes, he loves to watch TV–especially The Kate Smith Hour. He knows that’s one of the shows you work on. And from what I gather, he’s forever telling everyone in the home about his grandson in New York City. He’s so proud of you, Fred. You’re special to him. You always have been, you know.”
I nodded silently.
Listening to the rhythmic sound of the windshield wipers, I let my thoughts travel back to childhood …
As a youngster, there was nothing I liked better than Sunday afternoons at Ding-Dong’s rambling farm in western Pennsylvania. Surrounded by miles of winding stone walls, the rustic house and red brick barn provided endless hours of fun and discovery for a city-kid like myself.
I was used to neat-as-a-pin parlors with porcelain figures that seemed to whisper, “Not to be touched!"–to clean, starched shirts and neatly combed hair warning, “Not to be mussed!"–and to the inevitable wagging of an adult’s “Don’t do that, you might hurt yourself!” finger.