I have long had a soft spot for Fred Rogers, host of the long running children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, that I used to watch with my children when they were little. This was not because of the show itself. While its wholesome messages were universal and timeless, the presentation unabashedly aimed itself at very young children and its languid pace, low production values, and simple format made it somewhat dull for adults. It did not have the fast pace and dualistic sensibilities of Sesame Street that catered to children and also to their parents. The reason I like him was because of a very specific incident that occurred when my older daughter was just about to enter kindergarten at the local public school.
As some readers are aware, I had polio as a very young child and this has resulted in some fairly major physical deformities, such as a twisted spine, a hunchback, and pronounced limp, resulting in looking not unlike the character Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But thanks to a lot of lucky breaks, this has not prevented me from having a very full life. But as the day approached when my daughter would start school, I knew that one specific challenge loomed. Since I was the one who was going to have to take her to kindergarten and pick her up, I was a little concerned that other little children at her school might thoughtlessly make some adverse comments to her about my appearance and hurt her feelings.
So I decided to take pre-emptive measures to mitigate any possible harm by preparing her in advance for such an eventuality. An opportunity presented itself when she seated herself by my side to color in her book while I was working at my desk. I decided to bring up this topic gently and obliquely and the conversation went something like this:
Me: You know that I am a little different from other fathers, don’t you?
She (concentrating on her coloring): Yes, you have a beard and other people don’t.
Me: Yes, that is true but I meant that my body is different from other fathers.
She (still busily coloring): Yes, you are short and some other fathers are tall.
Feeling that my attempt at subtly introducing the topic was going nowhere, I decide to be more direct. I said that because of my bent shape and limp, children at her school may say things about me and she should not take it seriously and get upset because it did not bother me. She stopped her coloring and her eyes opened wide as it dawned on her what I was driving at. She said, “But Dada! It doesn’t matter what people are like on the outside. It is what is on the inside that is important. Mr. Rogers said so!” And clearly feeling that she had settled that issue once and for all by delivering an irrefutable, clinching argument, she turned back to her coloring.
I wrote to Mr. Rogers telling him this story and thanking him for making my role as a father easier. Despite the fact that he must have received thousand of similar testimonies from people, I got a long, gracious, and personal reply (that I still have), thanking me for my letter, discussing the importance of having parent-child discussions, and asking if he could share my story with others, especially the people who funded his show. I of course agreed.
Incidentally, my daughter’s admiration for Mr. Rogers never waned even after she outgrew the show itself. A few years later while still in elementary school, her teacher asked students to write about two famous people who were born in the month of March and her choices were Albert Einstein and Mr. Rogers. They were also shrewd strategic choices on her part since she could delegate to her physicist father the task of providing her with information about Einstein and her younger sister, who was now in the Mr. Rogers demographic of two to five years and had succeeded her as a faithful watcher of the show, was asked to update her on the latest doings in the neighborhood.
So naturally when I heard that a highly acclaimed film about Mr. Rogers had been released, I went to see it yesterday, the very first day it was screened in Cleveland. I found it to be excellent. Every review I read spoke of audiences crying, not because the film was sad (it isn’t) but because his gentle nature just touched you and choked you up. Kevin Fallon says that this film was one of the hottest tickets at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is only the truly churlish, (like the people who inhabit the cesspool of Fox News) who are critical of his message of love and kindness to others and can describe him as an “evil, evil, man”.
Mr. Rogers (it seems somehow wrong not to add the ‘Mr.’ when talking about him) was a Presbyterian minister and his beliefs were of the kind that gives religion a good name, not preachy or judgmental but inclusive and loving, showing itself through actions. He was also a lifelong registered Republican but at a time when that did not create the presumption of being a hate-filled bigot. While it began locally in Pittsburgh in 1963, the national debut of his show was in February 1968 at a very turbulent and violent time in America, with the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the Vietnam war and protests at their height. He was by no means perfect but came closer to it than most people. While his show addressed many major social issues such as war, death, divorce, and race and did so in very progressive ways, he avoided LGBT issues. Though he had an openly gay actor on the show and he and his wife had gay friends, he felt that the show’s sponsors at that time would not like it and would cut their funding.
Mary Elizabeth Williams writes that for all his gentleness, Mr. Rogers was a ‘total badass’.
As Oscar winner Morgan Neville’s timely, tear-duct lubricating documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” makes clear, the easily parodied, often underestimated icon of children’s television was a total badass.
Fred Rogers was an unlikely hero, an ordained Presbyterian minister and a puppeteer. Dismayed by the relentless pace, cruel slapstick and shameless commercialism of the still burgeoning medium of television — and concerned about its effects on children — he set out to create something different. As he once said, “I went into television because I hated it.” At the age of 40, he debuted “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS. Unlike most broadcast fare, it was languorously paced, with sweater buttoning and fish feeding unfolding in real time. It was also, from the very beginning, not screwing around.
One of the bittersweet joys of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is how Neville portrays Rogers not as some squishy Teletubby but as a loving, curious, concerned and often fed up human being. Fred Rogers did not suffer fools. He based his career on his horror of what he saw going on in television and in the world around him, and he was outspoken his whole life about it. That’s radical. His show was, too.
Given his wild ideas that humans should be treated like humans, it’s entirely predictable where the backlash against Rogers would originate. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” doesn’t shy from showing that not everyone was a fan. In 2007, a “Fox & Friends” segment referred to Rogers as an “evil, evil man,” because “the kids of today who grew up with Mister Rogers were told by him, ‘You’re special just for being who you are.’ He didn’t say, ‘If you want to be special you’re going to have to work hard.’ Now all these kids are growing up and realize hey, Mister Rogers lied to me. I’m not special.” They went on to explain that young people of the “narcissistic society he gave birth to” feel “entitled just for being them” but that “the world owes you nothing.”
How hollow inside must a person be to beef with Fred Rogers, because he was so loving and accepting? His message — as anyone so intellectually dishonest as to drum up attention by slamming a minister in a sweater knows perfectly well — was not that we don’t have to work or try. He was an accomplished musician. Think he didn’t understand practice? His message was, rather patriotically, the self-evident truth that we are all created equal, that we are all entitled to safety and happiness. This is what is terrifying to anyone would seek to oppress you, whether it’s your family or your government. When you have been loved and accepted unconditionally, you understand on a cellular level that this is what you deserve. It doesn’t mean you expect you’re going to get perfect grades or a fancy job. It does mean you recognize you have intrinsic value, that you have something to offer the world, and that anyone who treats you as anything less than a full person — whatever your age, your race, your faith, your gender — is failing you. And our species.
In an interview with Chauncey Vega, Michael Long, a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and who has studied Mr. Rogers, says that he was deeply political and gives some insight into some early formative influences on the man.
Fred was made fun of when he was a child. They called him “Fat Freddy.” It doesn’t get unpacked in the documentary. It’s so sad because fuel was his theology and his childhood. When he was a little boy, Rogers was shy.
[O]ne day Allen can’t make it and Fred has to walk home by himself. As Fred tells the story, he’s walking home and he hears this group of boys behind him start to yell, “Hey, fat Freddie, we are going to get you.” Rogers gets, as you might imagine, really scared, that he just takes off. Finally, Rogers makes it into the house of a neighbor and she takes him in and she comforts him. His neighbors told him not to mind the kids chasing him.
When he tells the story later in life, he explains that he was angry that they couldn’t see behind his fatness to who he really is. Rogers takes this formative story and makes it into a story about children and adults who didn’t see beyond what was outside him, to what Rogers essentially called the essence awesome. What is invisible to the eye. This becomes one of his favorite quotations. That quotation that he draws from a little print right comes from this story, of Rogers as an overweight boy, was ridiculed by boys and then told by adults not to mind them.
He did mind, and Rogers spent the rest of his life on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” assuring children that no matter what they look like, no matter who they were, no matter where they came from, deep within them was something that was lovable and capable of loving.
I now know the origins of the philosophy that he so consistently displayed on his show and that so influenced my daughter.
In the clip below we see him is accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime TV Emmy Award show in 1997 and you can see the tears of affection in the audience members.
Here’s the trailer.