The Radical Mr. Rogers

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Mr. Rogers.JPGWhen 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.”

Mr. Rogers.

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.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Keith:

Thank you for sharing your story. It's amazing how one person was able to touch so many lives without ever meeting them.

I too, grew up with Mr. Rogers and until recently (after seeing the autotuned mashup) I never realized how much of an impact he had on me as a child. I had an OK childhood, but my household had its share of issues which might have gotten the best of me if he wasn't there to tell me it was "OK" and that I was "special."

What an amazing human being and hope to remember his philosophy throughout the rest of my life (I'm 27).

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Donna:

Being the youngest child in the family, I didn't often have much of a choice as to what was watched on the TV. I don't remember a lot of my childhood, only bits & pieces; mostly things I'd like to forget. However,  I can vividly remember running off the schoolbus, up the driveway and flying in the front door, to the TV to turn on Mr. Rogers. That was the only time I "ruled" the TV. If someone even talked in the living room, so that I missed something of the show, all I had to do was tell Daddy, and he made sure it didn't happen again, at least for a while.  It was the only part of my life that I can say was calm. I didn't just like the show, I was "in Love" with Him. He made me feel like i mattered to him, to somebody. I was always disappointed when he sent us off to "Make Believe", or if he took us some place - like the bakery or music store. I wanted Mr. Rogers only, I was selfish and wanted Him to talk to just me!.   When I was about 11 or 12  my parents made me stop watching Him, they said I was too old for it. When I was 17 I got pregnant & married, and had my own home, and my own TV. Yep, I went back to watching Him.  Do I know it wasn't necessarily healthy to cling to that show, that man? Yes! Do I regret it? No! It took until I was 26, a divorced mother of 2, to find someone that made me feel that way in real life. It took until I was 29 to discover Christ and his perfect Love for me.  I didn't watch the show much anymore after that. I'm 42 now, and last year when our local PBS cancelled playing his shows, because "they were outdated", I cried, hard. For all the little ones who will never get the chance to see Mr. Rogers, to feel his acceptance & love, my heart truly aches. When I discovered he was a minister, many years ago, it all made sense to me. He was the example of the Love of Christ to me, when my life was still trapped in a life of rules, commands, & disappointments. I do believe he will be in heaven, and I look forward to meeting him, although he is not first on my list anymore. This neglected, abused, raped, beaten, threatened, ignored & ridiculed child of God, will be forever grateful for the gift of Mr. Rogers in an otherwise frightening & sad world.  I truly believe that I wouldn't have made it through those years without either one of them!

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Dianne:

Is'nt it great! My son grew up watching him and now my grandchildren love him too.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Alice:

When my daughter was the age for watching this show, and it was still on, I usually sat down and watched it with her... remembering the episodes from my own youth, but also being mesmerized into a calm by the gentleness of the show, and yes, love.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Luke:

Am I the only one who only just discovered that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian pastor?

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Rob E.:

I was 4 when I discovered Mr. Rogers. I never really looked at the TV before that. I didn't "get it". My Mother put me in front of it to watch him at the advice of the lady who came to our house to visit my Mom. I was totally mesmerized. I had never had anyone *communicate* to me directly through the television. He talked right to me like I was a person - not a little child. I watched every show I possibly could and to this day will never forget how he absolutely molded my character. Of ALL of the shows I've ever seen on PBS, and there are some great ones, there has never been a showed that has affected the foundation of who I am like Fred Rogers and his "Neighborhood".  If PBS wants to start a revolution, they would search high and low for the next Mr. Rogers and see what TV can be like without the frantic pace. Trust me, the 4 year olds don't know the difference.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Beck G.:

What a wonderful tribute to such a very special man. Mr. Rogers graced my childhood with his kind presence as well and I'm grateful. I hope, and even expect, I may see him in heaven and thank him for his goodness face to face.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Just_Audrey:

I love his message and agree that "nice is incredibly underrated." Yay for Mr. Rogers!