By Dr. Bruce Hartman:
Fred Rogers, or more commonly known as Mister Rogers, died in 2003 of stomach cancer. In his lifetime he produced almost nine hundred TV shows for children. He wrote over one hundred original songs for the show and created thirteen operas. Each morning, from 1968 to 2001, children throughout our country were invited into Mr. Rogers neighborhood.
In 1997 Fred Rogers received a Lifetime achievement Emmy. During his speech he mesmerized the crowd of famous actors and actresses with his speech and brought many to tears. He created one very special moment when he asked them all to take ten seconds to recall all the people who had made them famous. He said, “I will watch the time.” And did so, as all in the audience thought back on all those who had helped them. Fred turned his moment of glory into other people’s moments of glory with this simple gesture. He ended his speech by saying, “Thank you for allowing me all these years to be your neighbor, God be with you.”
Fred was forty before he became Mr. Rogers in 1968. Prior to this Fred had worked at NBC studios in NYC as a manager. Where he learned his craft of production and show management. Later he moved to WQED, a PBS affiliate in Pittsburgh. Over a few years he slowly developed the concepts that would come to be known as Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
He had graduated from Rollins College in Florida as a music major, which became an important part of the show production. In the early sixties he went to Bible college and graduated as an ordained minister.
Fred’s faith was always evident in his actions. His humble way of speaking with his head cocked subtly to the right endeared many to love him. While Fred was mild mannered and gracious in his speech, his show addressed difficult societal issues. Early on in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, he addressed civil rights. Sitting by a wading pool he invited an African American Policeman to put his feet in the pool with him. They talked about life as equals. At the end as they were leaving the pool, Fred Rogers dried his companion’s feet. On the issue of divorce, a serious issue for the children who watched the show. He used his puppets to explain divorce and ensure that the children who were watching and affected by divorce learned that it wasn’t their fault.
On the difficult issues of life, Fred stood up and addressed them. Not with bombast or highly charged language of blaming. But with a mild manner that explored issues from all sides and allowed the viewer to grow threw the truth.
Perhaps Mr. Rogers should have been a presidential candidate. He had all the right qualities. He listened to learn. He talked softly, but firmly. His first concern was always to encourage and make people better. There was no self interest in Fred.
Today, we see many of our leaders divided on the lines of identity. Some are Republicans and some are Democrats. Some are conservatives and some are liberals. These are secondary classifications to that of being Americans. Yet our leaders use their secondary identities to dictate their speech, not patriotism. We have become a country mired in partisan identities. Fred would have showed them how to play well in the sandbox. Perhaps a trait we so dearly need today.
Our country today is mired in angry discourse, in a recent Pew Research poll, it shows 67% of Americans are tired of the one sided positions of our leaders. They are an “Exhausted Majority.” Fed up with the arguing and rancor.
As a country where 90% of its populace believe in God and over 70% are professed Christians. Many of our citizens are afraid of stating their religious views, fearing they will offend someone. Saying “Merry Christmas” invites rebuke. Yet Fred Rogers would say Merry Christmas and in many of his speeches he mentioned his faith and wasn’t afraid to say, “May God be with you.”
In my book, Your Faith Has Made You Well, it spells out the value of loving your neighbor and the impact on an individual’s outlook. And neighbors were important to Fred, on his show constantly asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor.” A phrase right out of the Bible. It was Jesus’ second commandment. Fred didn’t pick and choose his neighbor, all were his neighbor.
Sure people may fun of Fred, he was used to it. As a child he was bullied and set apart. Forcing him to spend many hours alone. He retreated into a world of puppets, that would later become the hallmark of his show. His puppets didn’t produce rancor, but kind conversations. In those dark nights of his life as a child, he created a world that he felt we should all live in. A world that sought understanding and led with kindness. He never backed down from his gentle wholesomeness. Yet he powerfully educated a generation or two of children.
If I could, I would have voted for Fred to lead our nation. He wasn’t weak, even though he was mild. He was firm in his beliefs, when others mocked. He stayed on his course and saw every moment as a chance to uplift and encourage.
He was loved because he loved.