He taught us we were special.
By Marilyn Mackenzie
Fred Rogers, an ordained clergyman in the Presbyterian Church, lived from 1928 to 2003. One of his greatest accomplishments was that he touched the lives of children and parents for over 35 years. He taught us all that we were special. And he taught us that we should love our neighbor. For that, as he faces the Creator, I’m certain Mr. Rogers will hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
When I awoke yesterday and turned on the news, my 18-year-old son told me of Mr. Rogers’ death. He was upset, not only that the world had lost such a kind man, one who worked hard at sharing his talents in ways that made us all feel good about ourselves, but that the local TV news people weren’t responding in ways my son thought were appropriate. My son pointed out that when an entertainer – musician or comedian – dies, the local news people rush to find clips and show them at least every half-hour. I realized that he was right. But the news people merely mentioned that the man so dearly loved by many, and so easily ridiculed by comedians everywhere, had died of cancer.
Perhaps I have more of a fondness for Mr. Rogers because I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, the city where WQED operates, the PBS station where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood originated. Perhaps I have more of a fondness for the man because I knew his voice and puppets before the Mr. Rogers show began. Fred Rogers once worked those puppets and gave them voice, working with Josey Carey on The Children’s Corner. The characters were the same, as were many of the songs written by Mr. Rogers. But then, he was behind the scenes.
Then, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood began, and the world was a different place. Last night, as I viewed, finally, recollections of this man’s TV career and interviews with him over the years, I remembered things I had long ago forgotten.
The clips last night showed a time when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. As Lady Elaine Fairchild stood before Daniel Striped Tiger, Daniel asked, quietly, meekly, even fearfully, "What does assassination mean?" Mr. Rogers had created a special show, just for easing the fears of children about the world’s events, and invited parents to watch and learn as well, about how to talk with their children about those fears. I had forgotten how involved Mr. Rogers had been in our lives, how he had addressed so many of our fears.
If the Mr. Rogers show started 35 years ago, I would have been 15, and a bit too old to watch the show on my own. But I had younger siblings. My youngest sister would have been only 2, so I had many years of watching.
Perhaps as we aged, and before we had children of our own, we might have made fun of the man with the gentle voice and manners. But we all remembered the lessons well. Who else addressed things like death and divorce in a way that kids could understand?
When my son was born, the only shows he watched for years were Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and Reading Rainbow. As we spoke of his childhood last evening, he admitted that he didn’t remember much about Sesame Street, except that the characters were still sold in stores. My son’s love of reading and learning came from Mr. Rogers and Reading Rainbow. Like most of us, he remembered the visit to the crayon factory, and those movies delivered by Mr. McFeeley, the Postman.
Last evening, in an interview of Fred Rogers done before his show stopped taping, the question was raised about his faith and his being an ordained clergyman. I was impressed with his answers. Mr. Rogers reminded us all that our actions could teach and speak loudest, both about who we are inside, and about how others should react to the world around them.
As my mind pictured Mr. Rogers coming inside and changing from a suit jacket to sweater, and from dress shoes to sneakers, I realized that his predictable behavior taught us a lesson that we should all embrace and follow. When we leave the work or school world and enter our homes, we should take off that worldly uniform and put on our family uniform.
Mr. Rogers’ gave us an excellent example. Without speaking the words, he showed us the importance of leaving our briefcases at the door and donning aprons, as we loved our children. I imagine he was saddened as generations of kids grew up and didn’t follow that example. Instead, we’ve used technology to continue working through the night, believing, somehow that having our kids participate in myriad of lessons and sporting events will make up for sitting together at the family dinner table. How sad Mr. Rogers must have been knowing that moms and dads sit in the stands, supposedly watching their children run and hit the ball around a field. But they are really hovered over laptop computers.
In one of his last interviews, Mr. Rogers said that he truly believed if TV network executives would go home and watch the programs they promoted with the question always in the back of their minds, "Would I want my family to watch this?" that TV programming would change.
Mr. Rogers held a very simple view of the world, and believed that our world had more goodness in it than we realize. He may have been right. Although he’s gone, we still have the opportunity to find out if he was correct in his view of this world.
Who will be the first to leave his briefcase at the door and sit on the floor with his child? Who will shut off her laptop computer, deciding, instead, to bake cookies with her kids? What TV executive will sit at home tonight deciding whether or not the shows he promotes are fit for his own family? Doing so would be an excellent tribute to a man who tried to teach us how special we are, the importance of families, and that our neighbors are just like us.
Want to hear and remember some of the songs of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?
Click here: http://pbskids.org/rogers/songlist/
It has been four years since Mr. Rogers passed away. Recently, someone commented to me that she thought Fred Rogers had been in the military and killed some people and that way why he ended up being such a peaceful man. I had never heard that story before, so I was really surprised to find web sites that said that same thing. I figured the story was false when I saw that these sites could not agree about which war he was supposed to be in - WWII, Korea or Viet Nam.
It was an urban legend, of course.
Here's some of what I found on urbanlegends.com, plus the link:
"Fred Rogers won our hearts, true enough; but the rest of the story is hogwash. After graduating from Rollins College in Florida with a degree in music in 1951, he immediately embarked on a broadcasting career -- a career that continued uninterrupted for nearly 50 years, even while he studied for a Bachelor of Divinity degree, eventually becoming an ordained minister in 1962. Far from hiding a secret past as a trained killer, Fred Rogers was an exemplary individual who devoted his entire adult life to educating and bettering the lives of children, and as such he deserves to be remembered." http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl-mr-rogers.htm
I also found an article by someone who grew up as a real neighbor of Fred Rogers and went to church with him. http://www.time.com/time/sampler/article/0,8599,88632,00.html
And this from someone who interviewed Mr. Rogers: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/165/story_16581.html