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

A Conversation with Howie and Pam Erlanger
November 30, 2021Aron Hirt-Manheimer

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, “[Jeff] has learned so much because his mom and dad love him and he loves them.”

I sat down with Jeff’s parents, Howie and Pam Erlanger, to gain insights about how they raised such a loving son. Jeff faced surgery after surgery, yet he always had a positive attitude. How did he maintain such a positive outlook?

Howie and Pam: It was his nature. Not that he wasn’t scared. On one occasion, minutes before surgery, he said, “I can’t do this. Do I have to do this?” [But] as soon as the medical team entered the room, it was as if a switch flipped. Jeff turned to us and said, “I can do this.”

We intentionally created a positive, fun-loving atmosphere in our home for Jeff and Lisa, his older sister. When we decided to hire a live-in aide, we looked for someone...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.

How did you cope watching your child encounter all these medical challenges?

We took one day at a time, made the best decisions we could based on the available medical information, and [didn't] worry about things beyond our control.

How did Jeff maintain his sense of independence?

When Jeff was four years old, we learned about a rehabilitation center in Toronto whose philosophy stressed independent mobility for all kids, regardless of [their] age or disability. We flew there with Jeff and returned to Madison, Wisconsin with an electric-powered wheelchair!   

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 being uninterested [in outings] to being excited about [new opportunities to] explore.

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." He [eventually] lived in an apartment while in college, became an effective civic activist, and ran for Madison city council.

Did Jeff go to camp?

Camp was Jeff’s first big step toward independence; his social life really blossomed at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. In that environment, [all the] kids could be their best selves.

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.” Was that determination something he learned from you?

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

His credo echoed that philosophy.

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