I have to confess that growing up I was not a Mr. Roger's Neighborhood kid. For one thing, we lived in an area that was not served by a PBS affiliate. That is sadly still true. The closest PBS affiliate comes from Lake Charles and has a very weak signal. When we did visit locations with a PBS station, I was much more of a Sesame Street kid. I loved the action, the colors, the characters of Sesame Street and did not really get exposed to Mr. Roger's Neighborhood at all. And I've still never seen a full episode.
"Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?"
I'm learning more about it and have been intrigued by the Won't You Be My Neighbor? documentary. And what I'm discovering as an adult and parent is what a blessing Fred Rogers truly was. Man, we could use more people like him.
His story is fascinating. Mr. Rogers got into television because he was determined to change it. He was convinced television could be used to nurture, educate, and enrich those who would watch and listen, particularly young viewers. He was a Presbyterian minister who was not interested in preaching; rather, he lived out his faith as a shining example. He refused to play a character on his show, because he knew that being genuine was more valuable.
"One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away."
Through his show, he was determined to bring love and acceptance to every child, especially the lonely, the sick, the alienated, and those struggling to understand or fit in the world around them. He made accommodations to his show to make sure that his viewers understood this. When one young girl wrote in requesting that he audibly announce when he was feeding the fish because she worried about his fish (she was blind), he made sure to incorporate a verbal acknowledgement to each show. He wanted to teach children to love themselves and others, and to address common fears with comforting songs and skits. He took a trip to a children's hospital to show kids a hospital is not a place to fear. He recorded special messages after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, as well as during the Gulf War (which was re-aired during the invasion of Iraq).
"When I was a boy 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.'"
His show was also very progressive in its "radical kindness." In the height of racial segregation amid fights to keep public swimming pools divided, Mr. Rogers made Francois Clemmons a recurring character on his show, Officer Clemmons - one of the first African-Americans to have a recurring role on a kids television program. Mr. Rogers would sit with Officer Clemmons with their feet in a wading pool talking and singing songs. As an uncompromising pacifist, Mr. Rogers used his first week of programming to highlight his antiwar beliefs. This would also come up again in 1983 with a skit on the nuclear arms race and in discussions of the Gulf War.
"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes."
He essentially saved public broadcasting with an impassioned speech 1969 to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, resulting in an increase in funding from $9 million to $22 million. Interestingly, he also was a key witness for the use of the VCR to timeshift, or to watch programs at another time beyond their airing.
"My whole approach in broadcasting has always been 'You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions.' ... I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important."
I do want to address one meme that is going around. There is a story that is being shared that about both Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo presenting them as war heroes. The particular rumor for Mr. Rogers is that he was a combat marine in Vietnam with over twenty-three confirmed kills and that his sweaters were to cover his tattoos. This rumor is not true. Mr. Rogers never served in the armed forces, going directly from college to media.
And please understand me when I state that our veterans are heroes and there sacrifices should be recognized. But Mr. Rogers story does not need anything added to it to make it more acceptable or more heroic. He does not need some traditionally masculine aspect added to make him a better man. Mr. Rogers is a hero and a great man because of his quiet and unassuming nature which he poured into his work.
"When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."
That we all could be more like Mr. Rogers.