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Jeff Erlanger
Jeffrey Clay Erlanger

(1970-11-30)November 30, 1970
Died June 13, 2007(2007-06-13) (aged 36)
Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.
Education Edgewood College (BS)
Occupation Advocate
Years active 1988–2007

Jeffrey Clay Erlanger (November 30, 1970 – June 13, 2007) was an American advocate and activist for disability rights. He is known for appearing on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood when he was 10 years old, talking about his electric wheelchair and why he needed it.

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."

Early life and education

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 Erlanger was 7 months old, he was diagnosed with a spinal tumor. Surgery was used to remove it, but he was left as a quadriplegic. He 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 with a degree in political science.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

Before Erlanger underwent 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 the Erlangers drove to meet him for breakfast in a restaurant. Several years later, Erlanger was invited to be on Rogers' show.

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


Political career and activism

Erlanger worked as an intern for Representative Tammy Baldwin and Senator Russ Feingold, who honored Erlanger in the Senate. Erlanger became very active in Madison, Wisconsin municipal politics, holding a number of positions in the community including as a 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 2003, he ran for the Madison Common Council for the 8th District, losing to UW student Austin King almost 2-to-1 in the heavily student district. He helped gain the accessible taxicab service in Madison today.

In 2004 Erlanger flew to 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 his 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."

When Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, Erlanger was a surprise guest to introduce him. Rogers sprang from his seat and went onto the stage when Erlanger appeared.

In May 2003, Erlanger attended the memorial service for Rogers in Pittsburgh to honor him. There, he was one of a small group of speakers, who also included Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.

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

Death and legacy

After Erlanger choked on some food, he fell into a coma for three weeks before dying on Sunday, June 10, 2007. He donated his organs. Debbie Friedman sang at his memorial service.

After his death, the City of Madison Common Council created the annual Jeffrey Clay Erlanger Civility In Public Discourse Award in his honor. 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.

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