Fifty one years ago, the United States was in turmoil. Dr King was slaughtered, and later Bobby Kennedy. Protests against the Vietnam War turned violent. So did the Democratic convention. It was the year America fell apart, possibly never to be put back together quite right.
But that year a guiding light came into American homes, flickering with the cool glow of a television. Fifty years ago Mister Rogers achieved national syndication from PBS and quickly became the pastor, the psychologist, and sometimes even parent for a generation.
Today, we may need Mister Rogers more than ever.
Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1928. He was a little too young for World War II, but he did train to be a pilot. While working at WQED on a children’s show, he studied to become a Presbyterian minister in the evenings, but he never took to the pulpit. His pastoral work was there in the studio.
For many artists who have touched an entire generation, it’s usually better to let their work speak for itself. Mister Rogers’ neighborhood is so iconic, however, that it may best be reflected by those who it shaped. He lives on through his teaching, a genuine prophet and perhaps saint.
Given his great body of public work, it’s best to let him speak for himself, as he does indeed still speak to us today.
What was Mister Roger’s message? That we all have emotions and we all react to the world around us, but if we can just be brave enough to talk about our true feelings we’ll get through it.
One of the best anecdotes of his life and impact, just by being truly genuine, came from Tom Junod of Esquire. The story is from when Fred Rogers accepted a lifetime achievement Emmy in 1997:
Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award—and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.”
And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, “I’ll watch the time.” There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds—and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.
What few of us realize is how incredibly powerful Fred Rogers was and is simply by being absolutely genuine.
I had the great pleasure of living in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood for two years. While studying at Carnegie-Mellon I lived across the street from him. Passing him on the street, I would say, “Hello, Mister Rogers!” and he would say, “Hello!” and that was that. My day was complete. The peace of seeing him and just being his neighbor changed me.
A longer conversation came when WQED started running Doctor Who, and they invited some college students to a party, dressed up if possible. There I was, dressed as Jon Pertwee in an improbably maroon smoking jacket, talking to Mister Rogers. The Land of Make Believe was dissembled and pushed back to make room for the table of cocktail weenies and carrots. When I said, “Hello, Mister Rogers!” he asked what I was dressed like and I told him it was a British show about anything being possible. He said something to the effect of “I like that!” and went on to the next adoring fan.
It changed my life.
What would Fred Rogers tell us today? He would tell us to be kinder to each other and more honest with ourselves. He would admonish us to be grateful for what we have and more willing to share, but carefully so as not to shame.
Because I spent a few seconds of my life in his presence, I know the power of this message. The force came not from Fred Rogers, but from the quiet way in which he subordinated himself to it. He had a mission to make my generation the kindest and strongest and happiest it could be.
When we listen to what we know he would say to us, we are better people.
If you understand his message and his work, you know what to do. I ask everyone to simply listen to Mister Rogers speak to them once in a while. Perhaps when you are walking down the street, or when you are at home and things are quiet for a moment. Listen to him. He is still speaking to you, and you know it. You know what he would say.
He was there not just to guide us through childhood, but through our entire lives. Fifty years on, we forget this at our own peril. Please, won’t you be my neighbor?