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For the Love of Jeff: A Father’s Day Reflection on Mister Rogers’ Most Memorable Young Guest

For the Love of Jeff: A Father’s Day Reflection on Mister Rogers’ Most Memorable Young Guest

A Conversation with Howie and Pam Erlanger

Erlanger family

Jeffrey Erlanger gained fame at age 10 when he appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in his electric-powered wheelchair. After visiting with Jeff, Mister Rogers turned to the camera and said, “For all of Jeff’s physical problems, he’s such a competent boy. He has learned so much because his mom and dad love him and he loves them.”

On the eve of Father’s Day, I sat down with Jeff’s parents, Howie and Pam Erlanger, to gain insights about how they raised such a competent and loving son.

ReformJudaism.org: As a young child, Jeff faced surgery after surgery, yet he always had a positive attitude. What’s the source of his optimistic spirit?

Howie and Pam: It was his nature. Not that he wasn’t scared. We remember one occasion, minutes before surgery, when he said, “I can’t do this. Do I have to do this?” As soon as the medical team entered the room, it was as if a switch went on. Jeff turned to us and said, “I can do this.” The doctors and nurses started a conversation and he just perked up, smiling, and joking around.

We did intentionally create a positive, fun-loving atmosphere in our home for Jeff and Lisa, his older sister. When we decided to hire a live-in aide to free us up to spend more time with the kids, we looked for someone young and vivacious who could be like an older sibling. To find the right person, we’d interview them at the dinner table, where the four of us would joke around a lot. If the applicant didn’t join in the fun, we knew it was not a good fit.

It must have been very difficult to find your emotional equilibrium dealing with so many medical challenges. How did you cope?

Many a night we’d lay in bed fretting about our son’s future – until a life-altering insight dawned on us. From then on, we took one day at a time, made the best decisions we could based on the available medical information, and no longer worried about things beyond our control that might happen down the road.

How did Jeff become such a huge baseball fan?

Jeff couldn’t do a lot of the things other preschool boys could, so he spent a lot of time alone in his room playing imaginary games. In looking for something that might interest him and also expand his social interactions, we hit upon baseball, which at the time appealed to many people young and old, male and female. The national pastime became a big part of Jeff’s life.

How did Jeff’s electric-powered wheelchair impact his life?

With a manual wheelchair, every movement required someone to push him. One drawback was that when we went out, we couldn’t find things that interested him. Like we’d go to a department store and roll him up to something we thought he might like, but that’s not what he wanted to do.

When Jeff was 4 years old, we learned about a rehabilitation center in Toronto whose philosophy stressed independent mobility for all kids, regardless of age or severity of disability. We flew there with Jeff and returned to our hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, with an electric-powered wheelchair that Jeff learned to drive in juse one week!   

The first time we went to a mall with Jeff in his new wheelchair, he drove up to various store windows and said, “Come see what I just saw!” He went from this uninterested kid to this let’s-go-exploring kid.

Did Jeff have much of a social life outside of the family?

Girls liked to mommy him at school, but otherwise he was not on other kids’ radar.

His social life really blossomed at his summer camp, URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. In that accepting environment, kids didn’t have to worry about the social pressures at school and could be their best selves.

Camp was Jeff’s first big step toward independence, even though he needed an aide to brush his teeth, feed and dress him, and assist with toilet functions.

We built the idea of independence into Jeff’s thinking from an early age. “When you’re 18,” we said, “you’ll be in college and live in a dorm. We also impressed upon him that our family was a team, and that he had to pull his weight. Neither we nor Lisa would do things for him that he could do for himself. He bought into the idea, and not only did he live in an apartment while in college, he became an effective civic activist and candidate for Madison city council.

Jeff died at the age of 37. His epitaph reads: “It doesn’t matter what I can’t do…it’s what I can do. That’s how I try to live my life.” What drove his can-do philosophy?

Jeff did not think of himself as disabled, but as a person with some limitations. As parents, we encouraged our children to embrace life as an adventure and adversity as a learning opportunity that can make us stronger.

Jeff’s credo echoes that philosophy.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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