It’s a Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood: Fred Rogers

Todd VanDerWerff has an extraordinary appreciation of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood over at the A.V. Club, which is essential reading. There are amazing clips, too, sprinkled throughout, including Mr. Rogers’ appearance on The Tonight Show, with Joan Rivers hosting. We were a big Fred-watching household (and Sesame Street too), and Todd’s piece brought me to tears multiple times. He really gets at the unsettling and riveting (in today’s fast-paced world) peace of the show, and Mr. Rogers’ quiet and un-preachy moral authority.

Please go read the whole thing.

Here is a small excerpt, but there is more where that came from:

Since Rogers’ death, there’s been a movement to add him to the secular canon, the very small group of people whose cultural influence was used almost entirely for good, whose lives were untouched by scandal. What’s unusual about Rogers is just how well he lives up to sainthood. He was married to the same woman his whole life. He never smoked nor drank. He was a vegetarian, and when pushed to condemn homosexuals or people of non-Christian religions, he would simply say that God loves everyone just as they are. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, is one of the best arguments there is for Christianity as a positive force in American culture, and his unobtrusive religious influence underpins everything in the series without calling attention to itself.

In a famous Esquire profile of Rogers, Tom Junod boils down what makes him special: astonishment. Somehow, through the long process of growing up, the process that beats cynicism and ironic detachment into so many of us, Rogers was capable of holding onto childlike wonder and curiosity. Returning to the series as an adult, means being confronted with who you once were and all you have lost in the process of becoming who you are. This was often the experience for adults who were lucky enough to meet Rogers, after having grown up with him on their television screens. Junod reports both on his own interactions with the man and the interactions he witnesses while following him around New York City in the course of researching the profile. And there are numerous videos where talk-show hosts struggle to hang onto what’s left of their composure in front of the whole weight of Rogers’ sincerity.

Chatting about it on Twitter, MC, from the wonderful Happy Thoughts, Darling, wrote: “I’m not even v. religious, but I truly feel he was a conduit for something holy & great. A wonderful man.”

It is a sentiment I cosign wholeheartedly. For instance, watching the following famous clip of Fred Rogers testifying before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, making the case that funding should not be cut for the brand-new PBS. The Senator in question (a tough-guy Rhode Islander, naturally) starts off cranky, and openly so. He shows that he is barely tolerating the situation. “Would it make you feel better if …” But watch what then happens. And watch what happens to Senator Pastori. Watch the transformation. You can see it occur in the Joan Rivers clip in Todd’s piece too. Watch how her energy changes. People would try to meet him with cynicism, because sincerity and earnestness makes people feel uncomfortable. (As Todd suggests, this is because we have come so far away from the children that we used to be. There is a shame factor when you encounter someone so incorruptible.)

And please, if you read anything this week, read Todd’s piece.

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11 Responses to It’s a Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood: Fred Rogers

  1. Melissa says:

    Hello Sheila! Or as Mr. Rogers would’ve said “Hi, neighbor!” We are certainly kindred spirits when it comes to our admiration of that dear man. The senate clip gives me chills every time I see it. Maybe it sounds corny, but there’s something spiritual happening in that exchange — it’s almost miraculous to watch the senator’s attitude transform before our eyes. As I wrote to a friend yesterday after we both read the article, Fred Rogers was genuinely good on a level I think very few humans ever get to, or even aspire to.

    You’ve seen Mr. Rogers accepting his Lifetime Achievement Emmy, I’m sure. Everyone in the audience was in tears by the end — Rogers had so disarmed them and put them in touch with something so young and vulnerable inside.

    Here’s my personal Mr. Rogers story, since I think you will appreciate it –

    During my junior year of college there was a freshman in my dorm who was even more of a homesick disaster than I’d been when I was a freshman. She was lonely, weepy, and a little bit frantic at being away from home for the first time in her life. One day I struck up a conversation with her, and the usual getting-to-know-you topics came up: where are you from, brothers and sisters, etc. In the midst of all these childhood reminisces we somehow got around to how much we both loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when we were growing up. Daniel Striped Tiger, Picture Picture, Mr. McFeeley…it became a sort of bond between us, that we were both geeky fans of Mr. Rogers who still occasionally turned on the show when we were feeling sick or blue. From that conversation we went on to become friends, and I think that helped her get past her freshman year freak out.

    That August, around the time school started, a touching little book called Dear Mister Rogers was published. It was full of letters he’d received from children, and there was a piece of blue stationery in the back, so you could write your own letter to Mr. Rogers. I suppose the stationery was really intended for children, but I figured I’d write a little something to say how much his show had meant to me growing up, how his message of acceptance, kindness, and imagination helped shape my young life. How it was still helping me out, even in college. I sent it off never thinking he’d actually read it. I was completely shocked when I opened my little mailbox a few months later and found a full 9×12 envelope from Family Communications in Pittsburgh. Inside was a personal letter from Mr. Rogers in response to what I’d told him, a signed picture, and a big poster of him with Daniel, King Friday, and some of the other Neighborhood puppets. He said he thought my new friend and I might want it for our dorm wall. Does it get any sweeter than that? Here’s what his letter said:

    Dear Melissa,

    What a pleasure it was getting to know you from all that you shared with me in your lovely letter. It was interesting to know you heard about our DEAR MISTER ROGERS book through my visit with Rosie O’Donnell, and I’m glad to know you enjoyed reading it. I’m grateful that you wanted to take the time to write to me, too. As you can tell from the book, the mail has been a wonderful way for us to get to know our television friends.

    It means a great deal to all of us here to know that you have such warm memories of the times you watched our Neighborhood when you were growing up, and we’re glad you continue to feel close to what we offer. It was especially interesting to know that sharing your feelings about our Neighborhood visits helped you and your college roommate as you were getting to know each other. I thought you both might like to have the enclosed poster for your room. You might like to know that lately we’ve heard from many college students like you, who now and then watch our Neighborhood visits, and we’re truly grateful so many young people continue to appreciate our work.

    All of us here in the Neighborhood send our best wishes to you and to your roommate, for your studies and for all that is ahead for you both.

    Sincerely,
    Fred Rogers

    I’ve always been so glad I went ahead and wrote that letter, even though at the time I felt a little silly for doing so, as a supposedly grown-up college girl.

    • sheila says:

      Oh Melissa. I cannot thank you enough for sharing that beautiful letter. His heart shone through in whatever he did. And while I am not surprised that he wrote back, I am just so heartened to know that he did. And so personally, too – it wasn’t a form letter – he had really TAKEN IN what you said.

      That Lifetime Achievement Award speech is just incredible. I remember watching it live and I thought my heart would burst.

      Being in his presence – even through a television screen – makes you want to be a good person, remember you are good, remember all the other good people out there.

      That Esquire piece is fantastic, too – because it really shows that while he was clearly an adult man, with a wife, and kids, and adult responsibilities – he really was the same way offscreen that he was on. Amazing.

      Thank you again for sharing that letter. I am so so touched.

    • Kate says:

      What a gift. What a treasure. It was so clearly in his own voice. I think I will be a better teacher this week because of what I’ve read today.

  2. sheila says:

    Also, I love how he keeps saying “all of us” and not just “I”. That says a lot.

  3. Kate F says:

    Wow.

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I am better for it. xo

  4. Fiddlin Bill says:

    I cited these pieces on Mr. Rogers and Joyce today in a post:
    http://fiddlerbill.blogspot.com/2013/02/what-destruction-of-humanistic.html
    Here in NC we are about to have a “war” about the character of public education thanks to our new right-wing governor. I find this sad and very disturbing. Your pieces are as usual wonderful. Thanks so much for your tireless creativity.

  5. Lizzie says:

    I watched some, but not a ton of Mr. Rogers growing up, but this post, and the essay you’ve linked to, are so, so illuminating. I seriously can’t stop thinking about that Senate clip. As in, last night I was lying in bed unable to sleep, wondering, What would it be like to live with such honesty and openness? To be yourself so unselfconciously? And wanting to cry at that Senator making a complete 180-degree turn in under seven minutes, just because Mr. Rogers Talked to him!
    And then thinking about how, whenever people try to attack or belittle him, he doesn’t get defensive or try to strike back; it just doesn’t seem to affect him–except to make him MORE earnest, MORE himself. When does that ever happen?! Such a quiet and self-effacing presence, but so powerful–a good reminder that volume and aggression aren’t the only, or best, tools of persuasion … Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • sheila says:

      Lizzie – I know, I’ve been having a similar thing with Mr. Rogers ever since I read Todd’s piece! The Lifetime Achievement piece (Melissa linked to it in the comments), his Presidential Medal of Freedom award ceremony (the year before he died, I believe) – all of these things are on Youtube, and they are all so moving.

      He really holds some kind of secret for how to live life, how to be yourself, how to be kind. Everyone who met him said he was one of the best listeners ever, and I am not surprised to hear that!

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