There exists a direct link between the messages of Fred Rogers and moving through traumatic adversity such as the Holocaust.
Hedda Bluestone Sharapan spent 45 years working side by side with “Mister Rogers” after the first 20-some years of her life learning stories of discrimination, fear and resiliency, a running thread that allows the director of the Fred Rogers Company to continue to share a positive message.
“It informed my life,” the 70-year-old Shadyside resident said of growing up in a household that was both “a complicated heritage [and] a strong Jewish identity.”
Sharapan grew up in McKeesport under the same roof as her grandfather, who survived the Holocaust by fudging his age and being a very hard worker. Sharapan’s mother and father, Ida and Charles Bluestone, moved to America from Lithuania in 1936, and with strong American pride, her dad enlisted in the military. He found himself engaged in a conversation one day with a journalist.
The reporter told the then Army Capt. Bluestone that Bluestone’s family could still be alive at Dachau, the first Nazi-run concentration camp. Through its 12-year-history, 41,500 Jews were murdered at the camp. When Bluestone arrived at the gates, Sharapan said people gathered around him and in Yiddish said, “Your father is here.” Her grandfather was one of the first survivors to arrive in the United States.
Once her grandfather moved in, Holocaust survivors and family mem- bers of survivors or victims would come to the house and feel compelled to share their own stories with the family. Her mother’s sister was murdered in the Holocaust, and her mother’s mother — also living in the McKeesport home — shared the trauma of losing her child. Sharapan and her sister, Rena Haveson, an acclaimed artist now living in Seattle, would listen and take in the depth of the horrific events.
“We grew up with a sense of being grateful for what we had,” said Sharapan. “There is something remarkable about the stories I have been exposed to.” The exposure to life’s big moments, and the courage to deal with these events appropriately, came up again while she was in graduate school.
She was in her second year at the University of Pittsburgh and Rogers asked her if she’d like to help out. He was already a big deal in Pittsburgh, recalled Sharapan, as he was a part of TV programming in the 1950s that touched the hearts of many.
Sharapan jumped at the opportunity to take her book knowledge to the studio. Since the time she was 11 years old, she had wanted to create children’s programming, a path not surprising considering her storytelling experience at home with the Holocaust.
“He advised me to get a master’s degree in child development,” like he had done years before, Sharapan said of Rogers.
By October 1966 she was helping to produce a black-and-white television “series that “nourished [her] personally and professionally.”
Sharapan had the chance to bring her studies to the real world by speaking to themes such as helping kids with rituals and learning the differences between reality and fantasy, lessons she soon realized were not only geared toward children.
“It was about being human,” she said of her work with Rogers.
When she had her first child in 1970, Sharapan took on a job that would allow her to stay at home as needed. She helped with the show’s viewer mail, a feat that meant answering most of the 30 to 50 letters that arrived daily. She said that Rogers took such care when answering the letters, and she promised to do the same. In the letters, she got the sense that Rogers truly meant something to people.
Child development conferences want- ed Rogers to attend, and often Sharapan would go in his place. And while Sharapan was deeply enriched by Jewish culture, she would often share Rogers’ message of being a good human to many faith-based audiences. His goal, she said, was to “know the roots of people’s emotions.”
Close to the time of Roger’s passing [he died on Feb. 27, 2003], St. Vincent College suggested the Fred Rogers Center as an interactive space for people with all backgrounds and career choices to learn about Rogers’ work in an academic way. As the director of the Fred Rogers Company, the producing side of Rogers’ legacy, Sharapan was given an honorary degree by St. Vincent at last December’s commencement speech celebrating the 10th anniversary of the center.
Pulling on her Rogers roots, she embraced the graduates with wisdom: “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.’ ”
Sharapan is currently on the advisory board for the “Daniel Tiger” animated series, which was recently approved for a second season. She also continues her teachings through a monthly newsletter sent through the Fred Rogers Company. Her goal is to continue to help people feel good about themselves.
Famous for his one-liners, Rogers had one that stands out as a way to combat trauma, whether from the Holocaust or current-day marginalization and setbacks, said Sharapan. “Whatever is human is mentionable. Whatever is mentionable is manageable.”
For Sharapan, the Rogers legacy is inextricably linked with her connection to the loss and resilience that came from the Holocaust.
“It is a treasure trove of human understanding,” she said, “and it is up to us to continue the message.”