Mr. Rogers was a radical (and a minister, teacher, and neighbor)
Even with Hollywood’s attention, I don’t think we fully appreciate his genius.
I find myself engrossed by Maxwell King’s 2018 biography of Fred Rogers: The Good Neighbor. I have long been an admirer of the man, but I had no grasp of the depth of his genius and contribution to society. While I was enthralled by the documentary released in 2018 (and less so by the Tom Hanks Hollywood production — sorry, I’m a purist), King’s portrait of Mr. Rogers as radical, minister, teacher, and neighbor left a deep impression on me, both reaching me at the core (a look in the mirror experience) and also giving me courage and strength to continue living and leading through his values and legacy.
My experience with Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was pretty typical. Growing up in the ’70s, we didn’t have cable TV, so television after school relied on the local public station WGBH (little did I know how big a contribution WGBH made to educational television). Besides watching Neighborhood, I learned how to cook with Yan Can Cook and The French Chef, and how to paint with The Joy of Painting. Neighborhood was just another show to capture my interest and ward off boredom. If I’m being honest, I was probably more of a Sesame Street fan. As I grew older and moved on to other programs (I watched WAY too much TV when I was young), I lost track of Fred Rogers, only once seeing him casually walking the cobblestones of Nantucket shortly before he passed in 2003. I hadn’t thought of him much at all until the recent movies were released.
You likely know the story of Fred Rogers well enough. Raised in one of the wealthiest and philanthropic families in Latrobe, PA, he nevertheless had a difficult childhood from a social point a view (he was painfully shy). He never felt he fit in or belonged with his peers. It was a lonely childhood, which he sought solace from his love of music, puppeteering, and immediate family. His intent was to become a Presbyterian minister, and though he earned that designation through the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the growing world of television enthralled him. He decided to minister through television, rather than the conventional platform of church. And didn’t he ever?
Mr. Rogers was a radical. This is not too strong of a term. When you can say, “there is nobody like him on television (and hasn’t been since)”, and his message is authentic and purposeful, then you are left with the radical label. Case in point:
- He focused on social and emotional development over academic skills, believing that SEL was more developmentally-appropriate to preschoolers than learning their letters and numbers.
- He paced the show so slowly that it’s hard to believe that today’s children could keep their attention through an entire episode. He practiced tempo guisto (the right pace), believing that the slower pace and occasional silence would allow children to better focus on what they were seeing and hearing. Try watching a cartoon program today for comparison; it makes you wonder if children are getting anything from the program other than a penchant for distractibility.
- He vigorously refused to allow direct advertising to young people through his program, as this conflict of interest might confuse or trick children, and thus erode trust. This cost him personal wealth as well as putting significant financial strains on the program, which relied on generous grants from Sears Roebuck and PBS to meet its shoestring budget. Can you imagine any movie, program, or other production today not taking advantage of millions of dollars from product placement?
- He addressed topics no one else on television was addressing. Divorce, competition, disabilities, differences, and death were topics he would devote an entire week to. Millions of children were experiencing difficulties, at no fault of their own, and needed both Mr. Rogers’ validation of their experience, but also a message that things would be okay.
- He broke many societal taboos, such as the time he cooled off by sharing a pool with Officer Clemmons (played by Black actor François Clemmons).
Mr. Rogers was a minister. Even before entering television, Fred Rogers had decided to devote his life attending to the needs of others. He stayed active in the Pittsburgh community, doing much of his work away from the attention fame brought him. Ultimately, he chose to spread in a secular way the Presbyterian values though the medium of television, to the benefit of millions of children (and adults)
Mr. Rogers was a teacher. Each episode was carefully crafted by him, with consultation from giants of psychology like Margaret McFarland, Benjamin Spock, and Erik Erikson (all in Pittsburgh!). The messages, such as “I like you just the way you are”, were deliberate, repeated, and genuine. And children could learn about specific professions or skills (e.g. Eric Carle, Yo Yo Ma, Sylvia Earle, or the local baker). Mr. Rogers filled the gaps that traditional schooling left in the curriculum, such as the musical, performing, and industrial arts.
Mr. Rogers was a neighbor. You’d have to work hard to miss the whole premise of the show, but I’ll state the obvious: Fred Rogers was building, reinforcing, and preserving community. Not his, but our own local neighborhoods. He believed that the idea of community has inherent value and is vital to our health, happiness, and fulfillment. How can we argue with that?
I wrote this essay because I think the lessons and wisdom of Fred Rogers are critically important today. Social and emotional learning has been vindicated in school curricula, as it now represents the “soft skills” needed for the 21st century. He reminds us that the polarization of our communities has big implications for all of us. He speaks to the good and the value inherent in all of us, and even though he was pious, he’d be leading the charge to support equality for the oppressed populations in our society.
We could use a little more of Mr. Rogers in our lives and in our communities.
Postscript. A few fun facts about Fred Rogers:
- He was classmate to and a family friend of the legendary golfer Arnold Palmer.
- Michael Keaton, the heralded actor, got his start on the program working behind the scenes.
- He was obsessed with the number 143, which represented his lifetime weight, and the letters for each word of his favorite phrase: I love you.
- He wrote all the songs in the show, including 13 operas.
- He was a strict vegetarian.
- Nantucket was his sanctuary (before it became the hotspot it is today), and where he would write many of the shows.