50 years of Mister Rogers

August 8th, 2018

“First principles”

Fifteen years after his death and 50 years after his long-running children’s television series premiered, Fred Rogers is again in the spotlight. The documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is reacquainting audiences with the soft-spoken man who made entertaining and educating young children through television his life’s work. While nostalgia no doubt drives much of the film’s success, its popularity also suggests Americans long for a clear vision of what it means to be a good neighbor. “Our politics and our discourse . . . seem to have gone toxic,” reviewer Chris Nashawaty writes for Entertainment Weekly, calling the film “a security blanket for our troubled times.”

Director Morgan Neville says his film isn’t so much a biography of Rogers or a chronicle of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (which aired from 1968 to 2001 on PBS), but rather a movie about Rogers’ ideas, according to Variety. In an interview with Deadline Hollywood, Neville says, “Fred Rogers takes us back to who we were at our inception to . . . speak the first principles about how we should treat each other.”

Our neighbors have dignity

The first time Fred Rogers saw a television program, he saw performers throwing pies at each other’s faces and found the antics demeaning. “I got into television because I hated it so,” Rogers told CNN. “I thought . . . [there must be] some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood spoke truthfully to children about tough topics. In one episode, Rogers buried a dead fish from his aquarium while talking about his own childhood experiences of grief. Once, he devoted an entire week of episodes to helping children deal with their parents’ divorce.

Rogers also dignified children by treating their everyday concerns, no matter how comical to an adult, as important enough to talk about. I remember feeling relieved when I was young and heard Mr. Rogers sing, “You Can Never Go Down the Drain.”

In 1969, as the government debated funding for the fledgling Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rogers testified before a Senate subcommittee about how his show engaged “the inner drama of childhood.” “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable,” he explained, “we will have done a great service for mental health.”

Embracing the dignity with which Fred Rogers treated children and their inner drama can help us become better neighbors to everyone. My friend the Reverend John Ehman, chaplain at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia, recently told me how he finds Rogers’ emphasis on telling children exactly what’s happening “wise guidance” for his pastoral visits to people who are hospitalized. “When patients know why you’re there,” he says, “and what you plan to do, they can be at ease. . . . This approach to communication implicitly . . . [values] the patient’s perspectives and feelings. . . . Isn’t that really how we’d all like to be treated in about any circumstance?”

Our neighbors are special

Rogers routinely closed his show by telling his audience, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.” He first heard these words from his grandfather, when Rogers was an unhappy, overweight boy teased by other children. The message encouraged him, and he passed it on to his television audience as a heartfelt affirmation of each viewer’s inherent worth.

Many moments on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood illustrated Rogers’ commitment to unconditionally accepting everyone. In 1981, 10-year-old Jeff Erlanger visited the show. When Erlanger was an infant, a spinal tumor was discovered, and it left him a quadriplegic. During the 1981 episode, Erlanger demonstrated his electric wheelchair and talked matter-of-factly with Rogers about good and bad things in his life. Writing on his website the Neighborhood Archive, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood expert Tim Lybarger says the episode showcases “the influence this man had on young people and the comfort they felt in his presence.”

Rogers once told Christianity Today, “The underlying message of the Neighborhood is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’—that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world.” In other words, knowing you are special can lead you to help create a world in which your neighbors know they are special, too.

“God’s love and peace”

While Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he didn’t speak openly about his faith on his TV show. Junlei Li, codirector of the Fred Rogers Center, explains to Religion News Service, “I think Fred was very adamant that he didn’t want any viewer — child or adult — to feel excluded from the neighborhood.” But Christian faith did shape Rogers’ work. Once when talking to The Washington Post about his career path, he said, “I really believe it was the power of the Holy Spirit.”

In a recent email, singer-songwriter Rick Lee James, who curates a Twitter feed of Fred Rogers quotations, told me about a prayer Rogers prayed before each taping of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: “Let some word that is heard be yours.” James prays the same prayer whenever he performs.

James believes that people’s reactions to Fred Rogers even today are “a result of the God-surrendered life that he embodied. His gentle, silent demeanor has taught me more about a relationship with Jesus than a thousand theology books.”

When Rogers’ widow, Joanne Rogers, gave Morgan Neville her blessing for his documentary, she told him, “Don’t make Fred into a saint.” Neville understands why. He said on NPR’s All Things Considered, “If you sanctify somebody like Fred Rogers it means that we don’t have to try and live up to him.”

For Christians, it’s ultimately not Fred Rogers we have to live up to — worthy role model though he is — but the one he himself tried to emulate. He personally answered all his fan mail, and responded to one young correspondent who asked him about Jesus by saying, “I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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