In 1999, a man in a wheelchair came up to the podium at the 14th Annual Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Awards show. But, before he could speak, another man jumped onto the stage, bypassing the stairs.
The man in the wheelchair was Jeff Erlanger, a person with quadriplegia and an advocate and activist for disability rights.
The other man who jumped onto the stage was Fred Rogers, also known to the world as Mister Rogers.
Erlanger, who had appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when he was about 10-years-old, had come to the offshoot of the Emmy Awards, to help induct Fred Rogers into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
Fred Rogers was never told that his friend Erlanger would appear, so it was a complete surprise to him, as the cameras caught the joy on his face when he saw his old friend and without thought to the rest of the audience and the television cameras jumped on stage to greet Erlanger.
Although they had kept in contact over the years, it had been nearly 20 years since Erlanger had appeared on Rogers’ show to help share awareness and help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges.
Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang when they appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as the television camera caught members of the audience in tears.
According to the Mister Rogers web page, the two had first met “when Jeff was five. Jeff’s parents, knowing he was about to have especially difficult spinal surgery, wanted to fulfill his wish to meet his longtime ‘television friend’ Mister Rogers. When Fred was travelling to nearby Milwaukee, they had a chance to meet.”
Fred Rogers never forgot Jeffrey.
Five years later, Rogers wrote a script that included an electric wheelchair, according to the web site. “He had Jeff in mind. His producer and director tried to convince him that instead of bringing in Jeff’s family all the way from Madison, Wisconsin, they would be able to find someone locally. But Fred Rogers insisted, ‘I want Jeff.’
Erlanger was about 10-years-old when he appeared on the show.
After a few minutes of light conversation about his wheelchair, Erlanger and Mister Rogers then talked about the challenges he faced at a young age. Rogers then asked the young Erlanger whether there are times when he is sad. Erlanger responded yes. The two then shared ways that they cope with sadness, but agreed that neither was feeling “blue” at that moment, sharing a smile together.
According to the Mister Rogers’ web page, Erlanger was “charming and delightful, open and honest. Mister Rogers didn’t dismiss Jeff’s disability or the difficult times ‘when you do feel sad.’ He wanted to give Jeff a chance to talk about it and share those honest feelings with others.”
Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, said their original poignant scene was “authentic” and “unscripted,” sharing that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.
The episode was a hit, “and it did wonders for Jeff’s self-confidence,” according to Erlanger’s parents.
David Newell, a spokesman for Family Communications, Rogers’ production company, said, “Fred would [mention the segment] in speeches that he did for many years, about overcoming obstacles and feeling comfortable about yourself.”
Inspired by Fred Rogers, after graduating from college, [Erlanger] would become a celebrated civic activist in his hometown of Madison, WI, successfully advocating for accessible taxicab service, housing, and other enabling causes. He ran for public office and served on various commissions and committees, earning numerous commendations,” according to writer Aron Hirt-Manheimer.
He once chaired the city’s Commission on People with Disabilities. He also worked as an intern for Representative Tammy Baldwin and Senator Russ Feingold, who honored Erlanger in the Senate.
According to Vikki Kratz at isthmus, “I knew Jeff as the architect of the city’s first summit on housing for the disabled. It was an idea he had promoted for more than a year, and he was thrilled when the city finally held the conference . . . All Jeff wanted was for developers to think about people with disabilities when they build houses — to make sure the doorways are wide enough for wheelchairs, eliminate steps at the entrance, put a bathroom on the first floor. Simple ideas that are, as ever, made more complicated by politics and state laws.”
But, he didn’t just help people with physical disabilities.
Erlanger continued to reach out to people and try to help others whenever he could. In 2000, he made the news again when he helped a woman online who was trying to commit suicide. Although in a different city, Erlanger somehow got to the authorities in the woman’s city and the police were able to get to her in time, taking her to a hospital.
“One of the reasons I so admired Jeff was he was passionate about our nation on a big-scale level and equally passionate about our community,” Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk said. “This is a man who devoted so many countless hours to making things better for other people.”
Kratz, in an opinion piece, wrote, “Jeff . . . focused much of his activism on improving the lives of people with disabilities. But Jeff was the kind of person who immediately dispelled any notion that you might have about treating [anyone with disabilities] with paternalism or pity. He was intelligent, funny and often politically savvy. He was the kind of person who, even if he hadn’t been disabled himself, would have been at the table arguing for people’s rights anyway.
“He never once said, ‘I wish I wasn’t disabled,'” Howard Erlanger said. “That just wasn’t something that was an issue.”
Erlanger’s philosophy was exemplified in an award-winning ad he filmed in 2002 for Wisconsin Public Television, where he said, “It doesn’t matter what I can’t do – what matters is what I can do.”
After Erlanger surprised Rogers in 1999, Rogers would tell the audience that Erlanger’s presence was “a wonderful gift.”
Erlanger also spoke at a memorial service for Rogers when he died in 2003.
“Even after Mr. Rogers’ death, Mr. Erlanger stayed in touch with the staff at Fred Rogers’ Oakland-based Family Communications Inc., including Hedda Sharapan, director of early childhood initiatives,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Sharapan remembered Erlanger for “his buoyant personality, his spirit, his sense of humor. He was fun to be with and he wanted to help do good things in this world.”
“Anytime Fred was asked, ‘What was a moment that stands out?’ Over all those years, that was the one he pointed to,” Sharapan said. “It was so authentic, just a conversation between two people who care about each other.”
Four years after Fred Rogers died, Erlanger would pass away in 2007.
But, even after many years, people still remember Fred Rogers and the little boy he inspired, who with his compassion and activism would also help many people.
As they both sang together, “It’s you I like – every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings – whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember – even when you’re feeling blue – that it’s you I like. It’s you yourself – it’s you, it’s you I like.”
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