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In the early hours of a Saturday morning, our baby provided us all with a wake up call. As we stumbled toward the kitchen and living room, I flipped on the television, looking for an English Premier League soccer match so I could enjoy a hot cup of earl grey tea and properly wake up after feeding the baby. Instead, I happened upon Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Our 4 year old daughter was instantly mesmerized. “I like that guy,” she said.
When I was a child, I loved watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers was safe. He was kind and understanding. He liked to laugh and didn’t take himself too seriously. He was an adult, but still understood what it was like to pretend and imagine. Significantly, he explained the difference between the pretend world and the real world. And, most importantly, he talked about things – real things in life. He talked about feelings, he talked about death, he talked about school, and friends, and about people who were different from him.
I will never forget the episode where Picture Picture showed a film that explained how crayons were made. Mind! blown! As a kid, I did not know where crayons came from, much less how they were made. Now, as I’ve been watching episodes with my daughter, I am struck by the ways that Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood are timeless. While I realize the curtains, the clothing styles and technology date the show, Fred Rogers’ character transcends time and space. Last week, we happened to watch the goldfish episode: Mr. Rogers goes to feed his fish and discovers one of his fish has died. He buries it, and talks about how he had a dog named Mitzy when he was a boy. His dog eventually grew old and died, and Fred Rogers tells the viewers that as a boy, he was very sad and cried. By the end of the episode, both myself and my daughter were crying. Our own beloved dog passed away this summer – apparently the grief was still fresh enough for both of us to shed some tears and talk about how much we missed Benny. That episode aired in 1970 (with a clearly fake backyard). And yet, the two of us, watching in 2018, were moved to tears.
Maybe we don’t need fancy graphics or programs that change every 4 minutes to match our short attention spans. Even as a child, I understood that Fred Rogers was a genuine, caring, and authentic person. We all know that when we meet someone like that, don’t we? PBS aired a documentary entitled “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his television series. The documentary showed people watching Fred Rogers on his show. Their faces when while they watched him mirrored what I felt: safe, valued and welcomed.
How refreshing to see a regular person reaching out to people – not flashy, not creepy, not manipulative or egotistical, not a know-it-all – just kind, generous, and genuine. Fred Rogers was a man of faith and a Presbyterian minister. With all the bad press that so many ‘famous’ ministers receive, Rogers showed a consistent and sincere faith throughout his life and ministry. He did not, as far as I could tell, talk about God or his faith on the show. I suspect that was a deliberate choice.
And yet, when I watched Fred Rogers invite an African American policeman to take a break and rest his tired feet in a plastic pool with him, I saw Rogers help to wipe his feet with a towel.