Fort Myers author shared countless letters with Mister Rogers.
They weren’t neighbors, but Mary Manz Simon considered Mister Rogers to be a friend. In fact, they were pen pals.
The two corresponded for almost a decade, starting after Simon interviewed the TV personality for a 1994 article in Christian Parenting Today magazine. That led to many cards and letters and even a few visits to Fred Rogers’ Pittsburgh studio, where she chatted with him in his office and saw him taping his iconic children’s TV series, "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood."
"The friendship just kind of grew," says Simon, 71, of Fort Myers. "He was just a remarkable person."
Rogers died in 2003, but now he’s back on people's minds with the new Tom Hanks movie "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." It opened Thursday at movie theaters nationwide.
Related: Tom Hanks knows just how to play Fred Rogers, even though he rarely watched Mister Rogers’ neighborhood
Simon has seen the movie twice now, including a Wednesday red-carpet screening in Pittsburgh, and she’s pleased with how Hanks portrayed her friend.
"He’s not quite as thin as Fred," she says. "But he does have that pacing down and that’s the key. Fred had a very measured way of speaking."
Simon worked with Rogers and his TV team off and on over the years, including consulting them about product development and marketing (she also worked with the new movie’s marketing team).
She and Rogers bonded, she says, over their Christian values and mutual love of children. Simon is an early childhood educator, a marketing consultant and a children’s author who’s sold millions of books.
She’s glad people are thinking about Mister Rogers again. She says he offers a lot to think about these days, including the country's ongoing discussion about kindness, hope and decency.
"He cared about core values before we realized, as a nation, that kindness never is extinct," she says. "There’s always a place for kindness and decency."
Simon praised Rogers’ infinite patience with children and his willingness to pause, stop speaking and just listen to what kids were saying. That’s why his TV show became so popular with kids after it debuted in 1968.
Related: Explore Mr. Rogers' real Pennsylvania neighborhoods
"He was kind of like the ultimate parent," she says.
Simon recently showed off her collection of about a dozen letters and cards, where Rogers wrote about family, kids and work in his distinctive handwriting with its big, balloon-like letter "f." The envelopes were often stamped with a red trolley (a nod to the famous trolley on the show).
"What a thoughtful friend you are!" Rogers wrote in one card. "Thank you so much for writing.
"Your next ‘season’ of parenting begins. How blessed Angel and Christy and Matthew are to have you for their Mom!"
Simon didn’t attend Rogers’ funeral, but she says his death hit her hard. "It was a very sad time," she says. "I still miss my friend."
Still, she’s glad the movie is getting people thinking about her pen pal again. She says Hanks and director Marielle Heller did a wonderful, respectful job of capturing her friend on screen.
There was no one else like Fred Rogers, she says. And she cherishes their decade of letters and office meetings.
"He was the most Christ-like person I ever met," Simon says. "You think: Nobody could be that kind. Nobody could be that good. But he was truly a kind person to his core."
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This story originally published to news-press.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.