When I was a little boy—maybe 4—I was sure of perhaps just one thing. That no matter how bad I was that day, whether I colored on the kitchen walls or threw a fit or had an unfortunate “accident,” there was one person who would love me no matter what: One person who would say to me, “It’s OK. You’re great just the way you are. Everyone makes mistakes.”
Hey, my parents loved me, I knew that. But they could get mad and send me to my room on occasion. I knew that Jesus loved me, too. But when you’re 4 and you don’t see Jesus everyday, His love feels somewhat abstract.
But when I watched Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, it felt like I had a friend out there. He’d send out his trolley. He’d take us to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Sometimes, if he was feeling really adventurous, he’d throw his shoe up in the air. But most importantly, through the magic of television, he’d look me straight in the eye and tell me that I was special.
Fred Rogers was born March 20, 1928, which means he would’ve celebrated his 83rd birthday this week if he was still alive (he died in 2003). Earlier this month, PBS premiered the documentary Mr. Rogers and Me, an affectionate look at the public television legend through the eyes of Benjamin Wagner, an executive at (believe it or not) MTV.
For a week while he and his family celebrated his birthday at a rented cottage, he was Mr. Rogers’ actual neighbor: Rogers came by and sang to him, and the two wound up talking about Wagner’s parents’ divorce 20 years earlier. Writes Kristin Hohenadel for The New York Times:
"I felt vulnerable and safe at the same time," said Mr. Wagner, 40, on a recent morning at his Times Square office, where he is now an MTV senior vice president with a shrine of Mr. Rogers mementos above his desk. But at the time he confessed to feeling out of sync, a self-described "PBS mind in a jump-cut, sound-bit MTV world." Mr. Rogers listened, then offered, "I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex," Mr. Wagner recalled, encouraging him to "spread the message."
Mr. Rogers was a pioneer in children’s television—a medium that has long gone the way of jump cuts and sound bites. There’s not much of Mr. Rogers to be found, even in the best of kids’ TV. But even in his heyday, back when I was watching him weekday afternoons, the show was an anachronism: In my neighborhood, Mr. Rogers was sandwiched between the colorful and clever juggernaut Sesame Street and the groovy, hip The Electric Company. Both shows were fast, even frenetic at times—educational rock ‘n’ roll compared with Mr. Rogers’ graceful, relational waltz. And that, for Rogers, was the point. Writes Mary Elizabeth Williams for salon.com:
Fred Rogers didn't get into television to become famous. He didn't do it in the hope that his sweater would wind up at the Smithsonian—though it did. Instead, the low-key Pennsylvanian was drawn to the fledgling medium for a far less likely reason—because he "hated it so." When he turned it on, he later explained, "I saw people throwing pies in each other's faces and I thought, why do we have to show demeaning behavior?" And he set out to create something different. Something that would give children the message his grandfather McFeely always told him, that "There's only one person in this whole world like you" and that "You make each day special, just by being you."
It’s a given that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is, almost laughably, a Plugged In type of show. No sex, no violence, no language, loads of good messages. And it’s also, to our modern eyes, a little boring. The gentle empathy of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, like Mr. Rogers himself, is easy to lampoon. Zippered sweaters can still be worn, but only ironically by fashionistas. I’ve been told once that I reminded someone of Mr. Rogers, and I don’t think they meant it entirely as a compliment.
But yet, it wasn’t entirely an insult, either. It couldn’t be. After all, I’d wager many of us were touched by Rogers somewhere in our childhoods. Continues Williams:
Fred Rogers was fearless enough to be kind. Kinder in a single day than many of us can muster up in a week. He wasn't embarrassed to be gentle; he was never too cool to be simply good. He championed "not buying things, but doing things." He created the longest-running program in PBS history, and he didn't do it with mocking or putdowns or smug superiority. He did it by being nice. And nice is incredibly underrated.
To this day, I think it’d be cool to have a working stoplight and a working trolley in my house. I can still sing some of Rogers’ songs, word for word. And I kinda wonder whether seeing Mr. Rogers in action helped me better understand the kindness and gentleness embodied by Jesus—and maybe influenced me to be a little nicer myself.