Jeff Erlanger

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Jeff Erlanger
Jeffrey Clay Erlanger

(1970-11-30)November 30, 1970
DiedJune 10, 2007(2007-06-10) (aged 36)
Madison, Wisconsin, US
Alma materEdgewood College (B.S. Political Science)
Years active1988–2007

Jeffrey Clay Erlanger (November 30, 1970 – June 10, 2007) was an American advocate and activist for disability rights. He is well known for his appearance on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood when he was 10 years old, talking about his electric wheelchair and why he used it.

Jeff Erlanger's philosophy was summarized in a 2002 Wisconsin Public Television ad: "It doesn't matter what I can't do — what matters is what I can do."[1][2]

Early and personal life[edit]

Jeffrey Clay Erlanger was born in Madison, Wisconsin on November 30, 1970 to Howard and Pam Erlanger, joining his older sister, Lisa. His father is a professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison School of Law. When Jeff was 7 months old, he was diagnosed with a spinal tumor. Surgery was used to remove it, but he was left as a quadriplegic. Jeff received his first electric wheelchair when he was 4 years old. He required many additional surgeries while growing up.

Erlanger graduated from Memorial High School and from Edgewood College in political science.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood[edit]

Before Jeff would undergo spinal surgery at age 5, his parents asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted to meet "Mister Rogers". His sister wrote Fred Rogers about her brother's wishes. Rogers happened to be traveling to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so Jeff's family drove to meet with Rogers for breakfast in a restaurant.[3][4] Several years later, Jeff was invited to be on Rogers' show.

Erlanger appeared in Season 11, Episode 4 (#1478), which aired on February 18, 1981. Ten-year-old Jeff showed Rogers how his electric wheelchair worked and explained why he needed it. They talked about his parents, doctors, upcoming surgery and what you can do when you're sad. Together they sang one of Rogers' popular songs, "It's You I Like".[5][6] The two of them continued to communicate. In speeches he gave, Rogers told of Jeff's example "about overcoming obstacles and feeling comfortable about yourself."[1]

When Fred Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, Jeff Erlanger was a surprise guest to introduce Rogers. Rogers "leaped" out of his seat and straight onto the stage when Erlanger appeared.[5][7]

In May 2003, Erlanger attended the memorial service of "Mr. Rogers" in Pittsburgh to honor him.

Jeff's appearance on Rogers' show is featured in the 2018 PBS special, Mister Rogers: It's You I Like.[8] The special's host and former crewmember, Michael Keaton, recalled Rogers saying his most treasured moment on the show was with Jeff. Jeff's parents were interviewed in the 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?.

Political career and activism[edit]

Jeff Erlanger worked as an intern for Representative Tammy Baldwin and Senator Russ Feingold, who honored Erlanger in the Senate.[9] Erlanger became very active in Madison politics, holding a number of significant positions in the community including: member of the Economic Development Commission, chair of the Commission on People with Disabilities, and chair of the Board of Directors of the Community Living Alliance. In 2002, he ran for the Madison Common Council in the 8th District. He helped gain the accessible taxicab service in Madison today.[10]

In 2004, he boarded a plane for Boston to attend the Democratic National Convention, although he did not have a ticket. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, whose campaign Erlanger had worked on, was on that flight and got him in. Falk said after his death, "Jeff was passionate about our nation on a big-scale level and equally passionate about our community," adding, "This is a man who devoted so many countless hours to making things better for other people."[1]

In February 2000, Erlanger made a random connection in an America Online chat room at the end of the day with a woman in Boston who said she was trying to kill herself. She said she had "cut herself and blood was going down her arms." Unsure if it wasn't a hoax, Erlanger decided to take action, but his phone was in use with the computer modem. He went to his building's lobby to use a phone in order to contact the police in Madison and Boston, and then AOL to help with the rescue. Boston police found the woman, who had fresh cuts on her wrist, and took her to a hospital for medical treatment.[11][12]

Death and legacy[edit]

Erlanger choked on some food,[13] and was in a coma for several weeks before dying on Sunday, June 10, 2007. He donated his organs. Debbie Friedman sang at his memorial service.[1][14]

After his death, the City of Madison Common Council created the annual Jeffrey Clay Erlanger Civility In Public Discourse Award in his honor. Recent recipients include: Torrie Kopp Mueller for efforts to eliminate racism, empower women, and decriminalize homelessness; William Greer, president and CEO of Journey Mental Health Center; Leslie Ann Howard, United Way’s president and CEO; and Nan Brian, whose career has served children.[15]


  1. ^ a b c d DeFour, Matthew. "Madison Civic Activist Jeff Erlanger Dies". Retrieved 2018-03-07.
  2. ^ Wisconsin Public Television (2007-06-13), Jeff & Mister Rogers, retrieved 2018-03-07
  3. ^ "Memorable guest: It's you, Fred, that I like". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2018-03-08 – via
  4. ^ "2,000 turn out to honor Mister Rogers". Tyrone Daily Herald. Tyrone, Pennsylvania. May 5, 2003. p. 8. Retrieved 2018-03-08 – via
  5. ^ a b Deb, Sopan (2018-03-05). "'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' at 50: 5 Memorable Moments". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  6. ^ "Mister Rogers visits with Jeff Erlanger". The Fred Rogers Company. 2016-10-14. Retrieved 2018-03-08 – via
  7. ^ "Remembering Mr. Rogers, a True-Life 'Helper' When the World Still Needs One". Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  8. ^ Boedeker, Hal. "Mister Rogers: Still teaching what matters". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  9. ^ Congressional Record, V. 153, PT. 12, June 18, 2007 to June 26, 2007. US Congress, Government Printing Office. ISBN 9780160871436.
  10. ^ "Jeffrey Clay Erlanger Civility In Public Discourse Award". Mayor's Office, City of Madison, Wisconsin. Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  11. ^ Latour, Francie (February 20, 2000). "Chat Room Rescue Halts Woman's Suicide Effort". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2018-03-08 – via
  12. ^ Latour, Francie (February 19, 2000). "Cyber Chat Ends In Boston Woman's Rescue". The Boston Globe. Retrieved March 16, 2018 – via
  13. ^ "Swallowing issues with paralysis - Forum Topic - Reeve Foundation Community". Reeve Foundation Community. Retrieved 2018-03-18.
  14. ^ wrenb (2007-06-14). "Jeff Erlanger's Funeral". Digging Up The Daylilies. Retrieved 2018-03-08 – via
  15. ^ Becker, Abigail. "Tenth Jeffrey Clay Erlanger public service awarded to longtime YWCA Madison employee". Retrieved 2018-03-08.

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