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Making a Difference: Memory of Madison man who inspired Mister Rogers inspires expansion of accessible playgrounds in Madison

Madison Parks Foundation works to provide 5 fully accessible playgrounds
Published: May. 27, 2021 at 2:32 PM CDT|Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 10:33 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -In 1981, at the young age of 10, Jeff Erlanger inspired Mister Rogers and a national television audience with his heartwarming and open discussion about what life is like with a disability. Rogers had met Jeff once before and wanted him to come on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to help his young viewers learn more about electric wheelchairs and people with disabilities. Actor Tom Hanks told a reporter the interview between Fred Rogers and Jeff Erlanger inspired him to want to play Rogers in the film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”.

As an adult, Jeff became active in in politics and advocacy for those with disabilities. In fact, he was a driving force behind bringing accessible taxis to Madison.

Jeff died in 2007 when he was just 36. His gravestone 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.”

Jeffrey Erlanger at the unveiling of Madison's first accessible taxi.
Jeffrey Erlanger at the unveiling of Madison's first accessible taxi.(Jeff Erlanger/accessible taxi)

His mother Pam said about Jeff, “He was so upbeat. He was always happy. He didn’t feel sorry for himself.”

As much as Jeff could do, there were things his disability prevented him from doing as a child in the 1970s—like playing at a playground with the other kids or his sister.

Howie Erlanger pulls Jeff's wheelchair across a sandy beach.
Howie Erlanger pulls Jeff's wheelchair across a sandy beach.(Erlanger Family)

Pam said, “Oh, total barriers. We were at parks, of course, because his sister was only a year and a half older than he was. She would go to parks and play, so we would all go so he could sit and watch basically.”

For kids like Jeff, the Madison Parks Foundation has been working to build 5 fully accessible playgrounds in Madison. The foundation’s fundraising has already enabled Madison Parks to build two—at Brittingham and Elver Parks. The parks have special features for kids with cognitive challenges, and they are accessible to those who use wheelchairs.

Accessible playground at Elver Park
Accessible playground at Elver Park(Madison Parks Foundation)

Exploring the accessible playground at Brittingham Park, Jeff’s father Howie said enthusiastically, “We were both just astounded when we saw it’s ramped. It’s a playground with ramps. I can just see Jeff zooming up here. It’s so liberating. You just zoom up…being with the other kids.”

When kids play together, they also learn together. Howie said, “The more we interact with people that are different from ourselves the more we find out about them….the more we find out they’re people.”

Pam added, “I think just having kids with disabilities at a playground with kids with non-disabilities is just wonderful. Everybody benefits from it. This will only increase their understanding and their empathy and their respect for kids with disabilities.”

The Madison Parks Foundation’s now working to provide three additional accessible parks in the city. Grant Frautschi, who used to serve on the Madison Parks Foundation board of directors, stepped forward with a gift of $100,000 from the W. Jerome Frautschi Foundation to help place an accessible playground at Warner Park in 2022.

Frautschi said, “Quite honestly it’s an underserved, large part of our community. Twenty percent have disabilities and don’t get to enjoy our marvelous park system. What really makes our city the best in the world is our park system. To allow people to be welcomed in, and families to enjoy and create memories like we have? That really means the world to us.”

As Howie and Pam Erlanger walked up and down the playground, admiring the features that make the equipment accessible to those with disabilities, Howie remarked, “I can just visualize him (Jeff) about 4-years-old, with his splint, smiling right here, right now--doing wheelies with his wheel chair.”

Frautschi had the chance to meet the Erlangers at the Brittingham Park accessible playground and said, “I can’t help but say that it made my heart swell. If we can do that for other people as well--create more accessible options in our parks and make them as welcoming and inclusive as possible--that’s just money well spent.”

Frautschi added, “It’s a great feeling when you can give back to your community and leave something enduring.”

Inspired by the Frautschi’s gift, and by Jeff Erlanger’s legacy, the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation has also now stepped up with $100,000 to help build an accessible playground at Oscar Rennebohm Park on Madison’s West Side in 2022. That accessible playground will be named after Jeff Erlanger.

Pam said, “I think it’s wonderful. It makes Madison a better place. It does my heart good that kids will have a place to go now. It makes my heart so happy.” Howard agreed, adding, “It’s not about seeing Jeff’s name on there, it’s seeing the accessible playground.”

The Madison man who once inspired Mr. Rogers is still making a difference, inspiring others to make the places we live and play open to all.

Fred Rogers and Jeff Erlanger.
Fred Rogers and Jeff Erlanger.(courtesy of Fred Rogers Productions)

Reflecting on his late son, Howard said, “Jeff is here. His spirit is here. It’s just humbling to know he’s still having an effect. His life and his experiences remain meaningful this many years later. It’s awesome.”

The Madison Parks Foundation is still raising funds to provide the accessible playgrounds, which cost $420,000 each to install. Individual donors who wish to support the playground are welcome to donate to its campaign.

(Disclosure: John Stofflet’s wife, Anna Trull, is a volunteer board member for The Madison Parks Foundation.)

Jeff Erlanger headstone
Jeff Erlanger headstone(Erlanger Family)

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