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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Mr. Rogers, 50 Years Later

June 13, 2018 | by Judy Gruen

The unlikely media star taught the importance of civility, compassion, and the hard work of being a good human being.

As a young child in the 1960’s, my life felt very unsafe. My older brother, Allan, had suddenly died in a car accident when he was 17 and I was just 9. Added to that trauma, I absorbed a steady media diet of TV and newspaper reports about the casualties of the Vietnam War, the national mourning over the political assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; and the overall anxiety of a society enduring major social upheaval.

Fred Rogers, who had planned for a life in the ministry, understood that the feelings and insecurities of children – even under “normal” circumstances – required greater acknowledgement and attention. In the 1960s, offering children reassurance that they were special, worthy of love, and needed to have their innocence protected, became his more urgent calling.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Fred Roger’s remarkable program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, director Morgan Neville has made a marvelous, moving and important documentary called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Those who are unfamiliar with Rogers and the successful show he hosted for 30 years on PBS will quickly fall in love with his calm yet captivating presence. Clips from his show, as well as interviews with him, his widow, Joanne, their two sons, and many colleagues from the show, all remind us of Mr. Rogers’ contributions in spreading teaching how to nurture young children in a society that probably seemed scary to many of them.

He was admittedly an unlikely media star. “I was all set to go to the seminary to become a minister, but I went home my senior year for a vacation and I saw this new thing called television,” the soft-spoken Rogers told an interviewer.

“I saw people throwing pies in each other’s faces, and I thought, ‘This could be a wonderful tool. . . why is it being used this way? . . . They could not care less about what that cartoon is saying to the child about such things as human dignity.”

When Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered in 1968, the slow pace of the show even then felt like it belonged to a bygone era. While Sesame Street was teaching the alphabet by zapping kaleidoscope-colored numbers like strobe lights, Rogers calmly looked at the camera and asked his pint-sized audience, “Do you know how long a minute is? Let’s find out,” then set an egg timer and simply waited for that minute to tick by.

A particularly moving scene is the footage of Rogers speaking before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and its chairman, Sen. John Pastore, when funding for his PBS program was on the line. Rogers was at first visibly nervous as he explained the mission of his program to the committee:

“I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying ‘You've made this day a special day by just you being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service.”

Mr. Rogers won his funding.

In a time of social upheaval, Fred Rogers directly addressed some of the biggest and unsettling issues that children faced, including divorce.

In a time of social upheaval, Fred Rogers directly addressed some of the biggest and unsettling issues that children faced, including divorce, using one of his main puppet characters, Daniel Striped Tiger, to articulate sad feelings about parents breaking up. And without being preachy, he also issued firm messages of tolerance and kindness. In the summer of 1969, when white racists were disrupting efforts to integrate the nation’s swimming pools, Rogers invited the African-American actor Francois Clemons, who played the character Officer Clemons on the show for twenty-five years, to share his little pool so they could sit and dip their feet together on a hot day.

Mr. Rogers’ mission and messages are also fundamentally Jewish concepts. Judaism teaches that each of us was created as a unique and singular individual, created in God’s image. We each are here for a purpose that is also uniquely ours.

Years after the show ended, some writers criticized Rogers, claiming that his all-enveloping embrace of children and their feelings promoted the rise of a narcissistic generation. Those critics were wrong.

Rogers understood the psychological truth that before you can manage feelings, you must acknowledge them.

One song he wrote and sang for his audience underscores this point:

What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right.

It’s great to be able to stop, when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead and think this song.

I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop. Anytime. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can.

In a clip of Rogers offering a college commencement speech, he reinforced his timeless message, talking about the importance of civility, compassion, and the hard work of being a good human being. His mission, he explained, was “to make goodness attractive.”

After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Rogers was asked to create a public service message for the nation. In footage of that PSA taping, he was visibly depressed, wondering aloud on the set what good he could do in the face of such massive evil. Yet when the cameras rolled, he played the piano and assumed the reassuring countenance the country had come to expect from him. And he reminded America that even in dark times, goodness and love still existed, and that we still could find reasons for optimism. Encouraging everyone to make the world a better place, he used the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam.”

This film reminds us that the world was a better place with Fred Rogers in it. And his messages are more important than ever: take the time to slow down, perform acts of kindness, listen to our children, and reassure them that we love them and value them.

No matter what neighborhood we live in today, we can still import some of Mr. Rogers’ spirit of kindness and gentle nurturing and plant it there.


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