ATHENS – Newton County native Timothy K. Adams Jr. has performed under the direction of some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, Pierre Boulez, Robert Shaw and Sir Neville Marriner.
He’s played in major concert halls throughout the world and has performed with a Who’s Who of soloists, including Luciano Pavarotti, Tony Bennett, Della Reese and Terence Blanchard.
But Adams reserves one of his most cherished musical memories for his collaboration nearly 20 years ago with Fred Rogers, creator of the long-running PBS series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and subject of the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
The son of iconic Newton County educators Louise and T.K. Adams appeared on a 1999 episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” demonstrating a variety of percussion instruments in the episode entitled “Noisy & Quiet.”
“It’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life in music on that show,” said Adams, chair of the percussion department at the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music. “I’ve played under great conductors, toured Europe and played Carnegie Hall many times, but doing Mr. Rogers’ show will touch people as long as there’s Amazon Prime and YouTube.
“It was great to have an impact on a show that’s so important, especially today with the state that our world is in. If there were more Mr. Rogers, we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in.”
Adams, who lives in Athens with his wife Kimberly Toscano Adams and their 2-year-old son, was a Pittsburgh resident at the time of the Mr. Rogers taping, serving as principal timpanist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and professor of music at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Fred lived about a one-minute walk from the school, so I’d see him at school all the time and he came to a lot of concerts,” said Adams. “He knew who I was from playing in the orchestra, and once I did his show I’d see him even more.”
And unlike most folks seen regularly on television, Fred Rogers was the same person, whether the cameras were on or off, Adams says.
“It took eight or 10 hours to shoot, and what was interesting was that Fred was super-curious,” he said. “He was not acting – he was really curious about the instruments. So when we’d stop taping, he’d ask questions and he’d play all the instruments because he was a real musician.
“Most of the people on television have a different persona, and I kind of expected ‘Crazy Freddie’ to come out or something, but he was just that sincere and beautiful as a person when we were taping and when we were taking a break.”
Although he was not a regular Mr. Rogers viewer while growing up, Adams says he and his wife regularly watch repeats of the show these days with their son. And he adds that meeting and getting to know Rogers has had a definitive impact on his personal life.
“Just being around Fred and being around someone that is so sincere and moved by what he felt God’s mission for him was,” he said. “In the same breath it was really something to be around that level of musician, because he was incredible, a terrific musician. He was beautiful songwriter with a beautiful voice and he was a terrific pianist. Those are the things a lot of people don’t know.
“He was a great communicator for kids but he was also a great musician, and perhaps he was a greater musician. The words are beautiful and so heartfelt and it’s coming from a Presbyterian aesthetic. He’s not coming from some Hollywood point of view to pump up viewership, he was coming from an aesthetic that was Christian-based, from God. To me, that’s the reason his show was successful – it wasn’t for man. It was beyond man for kids. That to me had the most impact as a person.”
When asked if he’s had an opportunity to see the new documentary, Adams laughed and said, “I would love to see it but we have a 2-year-old, so we haven’t seen a movie in two years. We thought about trying to do it this weekend, but we started potty training. We’ll catch it soon, we’ll see it.”
Above all, Adams appreciates “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for its willingness to approach subjects that few television programs – then or now – dare to discuss.
“He tackled the tough issues that adults wouldn’t tackle on adult shows,” said Adams. “He talked about assassination, racism, hate, suicide – adult subjects he felt were important for kids to understand, which is very true.
“With the sensitivity that he had, most of the adult shows didn’t deal with those issues the same way. It was very sensationalized and to him it was important to understand that you have emotions and it’s OK to have emotions and we need to be kind to each other.”