WASHINGTON: At a time when incivility between political parties is growing in the American society, it is good that more and more people are remembering Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers was a trusted a voice of compassion and kindness who had an extraordinary influence for good for more than three decades (1968-2001). With the recent wars between political parties escalating, the civility of Mr. Rogers is being waxed poetic. This Father’s Day, my daughter invited me to see the new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” directed by Morgan Neville, about Fred Rogers’ extraordinary program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which began airing in 1968 and ran 895 episodes.
At its peak in 1985, 8% of American households tuned into the show.
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Each episode began the same way, Mister Rogers is seen coming home, singing his theme song, “Won’t you be my Neighbor?” He steps into the house, hangs his coat up (a gentle lesson), changes into sneakers and a cardigan sweater.
In a typical episode, Rogers might have an earnest conversation with his television audience, interact with guests, take a field trip to places such as a bakery or the music store or watch a short film. Typical video subjects included demonstrations of how mechanical objects work, such as bulldozers, or how things are manufactured, such as crayons.
Each episode also included a trip to Rogers’ “Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” featuring a trolley with its own theme song, a castle and the kingdom’s citizens, including King Friday Xlll. The subjects discussed often allowed further development of themes introduced in Mister Rogers’ “real” neighborhood.
Each episode usually explored a major theme, such as going to school for the first time. Rogers composed almost all of the music on the program.
Mr. Rogers and speaking to children
He wanted to teach children to love themselves and others and he addressed common childhood fears with comforting songs and skits.
Writing ‘Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?‘ in ArtVoice, Norbert Rug says,
“Fifteen years after the legendary host of a children’s television program passed away, the entertainment world is being swept up in a Fred Rogers revivalism. I know ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ was written for preschoolers, but I liked this much more than any of the children’s shows airing nowadays that are frequently just thinly veiled sales pitches.
I actually enjoyed watching ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ with my grandchildren.”
Fred Rogers higher calling to broadcasting kindness to kids
Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, felt a calling to work in television. His goal was to make something more tranquil than what young children were watching. He spoke slowly and softly in simple sentences. The stories are muted in tone, without violence, and deliver lessons about proper behavior. The journey is gentle.
Rogers understood that adults sometimes assume too much about what children understand or that they are too rushed to talk to them about the basics of life. He would explain everything from the functioning of the human body to the reason some real-world events upset grown-ups.
He tells his audience that everyone feels helpless, overwhelmed, ignorant and angry sometimes.
Jeanne Croteau writes of Fred Rogers that,
“He was a trailblazing pioneer who, rather than just sit and whine about the world made it his mission to go out and change it. He was living proof that strength is not in how loud we can scream or how hard we can hit but, rather, how committed we are to making things better.”
Gently breaking racial barriers
Francois Clemmons, who became Officer Clemmons on the program, became the first African-American in television history to have a recurring role on a TV show.
Fred Rogers knew exactly the statement he was making by having a black man in a position of power and authority on a show airing in the 1960s.
In one early episode, Rogers invites Clemmons to soak his feet in his pool alongside his own. This episode aired in 1969, at a time when segregated swimming pools were still very much in evidence.
Francois Clemmons, the actor that portrayed Officer Clemmons reflects on his memories of the show, his casting as Officer Clemmons and the incomparable Fred Rogers himself. Courtesy of Senior Care Helper.
Mr. Rogers and the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication
In 1969, Fred Rogers appeared before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication.
His goal was to support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in response to proposed budget cuts. In about 6 minutes of testimony, Rogers spoke about the need for social and emotional education that public television provided. He argued that alternative programming like his helped encourage children to become happy and productive citizens. He recited the lyrics to one of his songs.
The chairman of the subcommittee, Sen. John Pastore of Rhode Island, was not familiar with Rogers’ work and was sometimes described as impatient. However, he reported that the testimony had given him goosebumps and declared,
“I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
PBS funding went from $9 million to $22 million.
Post 9/11/2001 – tikkun olam
When he briefly came out of retirement to host a TV special after September 11, Rogers said,
“We are called to be tikkun olam,’ repairing the creation.” – Fred Rogers
The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, noted that,
“Perhaps it was Rogers’ unfailing optimism which connected him to this Jewish value. Even in the darkest moments, he would look for a silver lining. ‘When I was a boy,’ Rogers recalled, ‘and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
In 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Fred Rogers the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Fred Rogers has proven,” declared the president, “that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young.”
A year later, the U.S.Senate unanimously passed Resolution 16 to commemorate the life of Fred Rogers. It read, in part,
“Through his spirituality and placid nature, Mister Rogers was able to reach out to our nation’s children and encourage each of them to understand the important role they play in their communities and as part of their families. More importantly, he did not shy away from dealing with difficult issues of death and divorce but rather encouraged children to express their emotions in a healthy, constructive manner, often providing a simple answer to life’s hardships.”
After his death, the Presbyterian Church declared:
“The Reverend Fred M. Rogers…had a profound effect on the lives of millions of people across the country through his ministry to children and families. Mister Rogers promoted and supported Christian values in the public media with his demonstration of unconditional love.”
In 2003, the asteroid 26858MisterRogers was named by the International Astronomical Union in an announcement at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. The Science Center worked with Rogers’ Family Communications, Inc. to produce a planetarium show for preschoolers called, “The Sky Above Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” which plays at planetariums across the country.
This year, Fred Rogers appears on a commemorative U.S. Postage stamp.
In an article about Fred Rogers in The Washington Post, “Yes, Mister Rogers was really like that,” Maura Judiis writes:
“Whenever I tell people that my dad worked for Mister Rogers and that I met the children’s TV star when I was young, they always ask the same question: ‘Was he really like that in person?’ By ‘like that’ they mean the qualities that we associate with Mister Rogers: gentleness, patience, wisdom, and empathy. The insinuation is that it must have been an act, that no person could be so nice, but the answer is yes: he was like that.”
The director of the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” fully agrees.
Morgan Neville says,
“He’s just an incomparable figure. And when somebody is incomparable, it really makes you ask questions. He’s even a better version of who he seems, in real life. The entire process of making this film was one of discovering more and more dimensions of the man. I never discovered anything that was truly dissonant with what I thought he was.”
Tributes to Fred Rogers
The documentary isn’t the only tribute to Fred Rogers making the rounds. Not long after the documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Tristar Pittsburgh declared plans to film a biopic with Tom Hanks playing Rogers, that is based on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article about his friendship with the television host.
PBS recently aired a 50th-anniversary tribute to Fred Rogers, hosted by Michael Keaton. Twitch, a live streaming video platform, teamed with PBS to, launch a marathon of 90 of the most well-liked episodes.
This was followed by a complete run of the series.
If any story can bring people together, it is the one portrayed in “Will You Be My Neighbor.”
Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, should find in Fred Rogers (incidentally, a life-long registered Republican) a figure whose influence for good can help move us away from the incivility which seems to grow almost daily. Fred Rogers would be unhappy to see it and so should we all.