Mr. Rogers stamp
WQED's Rick Sebak emcees the unveiling of a postage stamp commemorating Fred Rogers. Photo by Ryan Rydzewski.

A television studio filled to capacity. Remarks by a major government official. A jazz guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Several weeping adults.

To an unsuspecting outsider, it might have seemed like a little much. It was 11 a.m. on a Friday, after all, and the red carpet crowd — one that included Mayor Bill Peduto, beloved documentarian Rick Sebak and busloads of excited schoolchildren — had come out to celebrate, of all things, a postage stamp.

But when the man on the stamp is America’s favorite neighbor, you pull out all the stops.

On March 23, Pittsburghers packed WQED’s Studio A, where Fred Rogers filmed nearly 900 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The occasion: Megan Brennan, postmaster general of the United States, had come to town to unveil her agency’s latest commemorative stamp, a smiling portrait of Rogers with King Friday XIII. The jazz guitarist was none other than Joe Negri, who played Handyman Negri on Rogers’ program for nearly four decades.

And the adults wept because, well, that’s what adults do when they remember how Rogers made them feel. When they remember, as Brennan put it, “the unmistakable feeling that Mister Rogers was our friend.”

Throughout the hourlong, Sebak-emceed affair, Brennan and others reminded the audience what that friendship felt like, pondering Rogers’ message in a world that needs it more than ever. In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, “children learned, in a safe space, how to be a friend and create relationships,” said Brennan. “When [Rogers] sang ‘It’s You I Like,’ it was always heartfelt and personal.”

Beyond his sweaters and songs, Rogers also left us with a “deeper, fundamental question,” said Brennan: “What makes a good neighbor?”

The speakers who followed looked to Rogers’ life for an answer. Fittingly, their stories involved the mail, which Rogers used throughout his career to correspond with fans.

Paul Siefken, president and CEO of The Fred Rogers Company, shared letters to and from Rogers, growing emotional during one written by a child battling leukemia. Jim Cunningham, host of WQED-FM’s morning show, urged the audience to go out and speak to a stranger or co-worker using a kinder, gentler tone. Or better yet, he said, “put a Fred Rogers stamp on an envelope this afternoon and write someone a letter.”

James Okonak, executive director of the McFeely-Rogers Foundation in Latrobe, recalled a morning when Rogers visited his home, bringing in the family’s mail and delighting his toddler son.

“To all of us,” said Okonak, “Fred is forever.”

Of course, the event wouldn’t have been complete without a nod to the Neighborhood’s mailman, who was also in attendance. “The Postal Service has a special affinity for the speedy delivery man, Mr. McFeely,” said Brennan. Laughs quickly gave way to applause, and David Newell — the actor who played McFeely for decades — waved to the children who’d grown up expecting his arrival.

See the full event here:

Ryan Rydzewski

Ryan Rydzewski is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Lawrenceville, where he reads on his porch and holds up traffic on his bike. Follow him on Twitter @RyanRydzewski