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This year marks the golden anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — 50 years since the children’s TV staple was first broadcast nationally — and a flood of high-profile tributes is well underway. There’s a postage stamp commemorating Fred Rogers, the show’s affable host, a star-powered PBS special, a documentary, and coming later this year, a Rogers biography and a biopic starring Tom Hanks as Rogers.
From all these adoring tributes, it is clear that Rogers and his show are considered a national treasure. I have my own Mr. Rogers memories, including a brief personal encounter with the man that led me to reconcile the TV character with the person he really was. The reason why? Fred Rogers was my real-life neighbor.
As a kid, I never liked Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In fact, I couldn’t stand it, especially the host, with his wimpy voice and mawkish homilies. I thought it was corny and dull, especially that tired routine of putting on his cardigan and Keds, warbling the theme song, then changing back into his suit jacket and dress shoes to close out the show. And it was so insufferably earnest, with no hint of flash or slyness, qualities that were abundant in Sesame Street and The Electric Company, which I much preferred.
Maybe the reason I found Mr. Rogers so unbearable was because his trademark solicitude toward children seemed fake to me. His whole approach just didn’t jibe with the reality I knew at home, or anywhere else for that matter. The parents of my generation — who themselves were raised under such notions as “children should be seen and not heard” — simply weren’t as involved or interested in the everyday reality of their children’s lives. We were told, or simply expected, to go play in the streets.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was produced in my hometown Pittsburgh, which gave the show an outsized presence there. Some of the cast members were local celebrities: Don Brockett, who played Chef Brockett on the show, was on my paper route. He and other characters from the show appeared frequently at children’s events and charity functions. Mr. Rogers himself, as I found out one day, lived a mere two blocks from me.
I was 12 when I discovered this. It was springtime, which meant baseball and preparing for the upcoming little league season. Raising money for the team, which every player had to do, was part of this preparation — a dreaded prelude to batting practice and fielding drills.
I was soliciting donations, going door-to-door on a grand boulevard — rows of mansions with emerald lawns, right up the street from Mellon Park, the one-time estate of Andrew Mellon. It was the heart of old money Pittsburgh, yet on the day I came calling, no one seemed to have a dime to spare. One after another they turned me away from their sprawling compounds and pseudo-manors with faux-plantation facades.
I was utterly demoralized and ready to quit while also feeling a tinge of resentment toward the rich kids whose parents had taken care of their children’s donations, sparing them the humiliation of begging from strangers.
That’s when I got to Mr. Rogers’s house. I recognized him as soon as he opened the door. Though he maintained a certain formality — I was a stranger after all — he was entirely gracious and approachable. I acted, though, as if I had never seen him. I didn’t want to appear starstruck, and anyways I didn’t even like his show. Instead, I focused on the task at hand: Do not leave without something. I had to end the day with at least one donation.
After I stammered out my introduction, he invited me in and we stood in the foyer, where he heard my pitch. To my surprise, he really listened to me, asking me questions and requesting that I elaborate on some of points I was making. The entire day I had been knocking on doors, not a single person asked me why I was doing what I was doing.
Then he probed: “I’ve heard that the parents really push the children in those leagues.” An image flashed in my head: our star pitcher’s father — a real booster for his son and the team, in the stands for every game — wearing a lavish print shirt, gold medallions, waving a cigar while he hollered at his son in the field. He was a caricature, a father living vicariously through his son’s athletic prowess.
And he wasn’t even as bad as some parents I’d heard about in other leagues who verbally assaulted coaches and umpires or berated their offspring in public. By asking me this question, Mr. Rogers showed that he knew this was a reality for many of us, and that he only wanted to support the league if he knew I was having a good experience.
“Oh no sir, not in our league,” I answered automatically. This satisfied him and he rewarded me with a dollar.
After that, I couldn’t think of Rogers as anything less than completely authentic. The compassion he had for children, the intense interest he had in their lives, which on TV seemed fake to me, was revealed in those two or three minutes of face time. Never again did I doubt whether “Mister Rogers” and the person I had met were one in the same.
Most astounding to me was the serious deliberation he gave to my request. Not for a second did I feel he was just trying to be nice or otherwise humor me, unlike the other adults I had just encountered in Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood. After running the gauntlet of their indifference, Rogers’s concern and his eagerness to engage me was a real tonic. Perhaps that’s the effect he had on children who watched his show and actually liked it.
When I got back home, I stared at the single dollar I had collected, as if in a trance. Mr. Rogers and the world I had stumbled into briefly after ringing his doorbell, the very world conjured on his show, offered a glimpse into how things could be if adults treated children with real respect.
Fred Rogers’s ethos was unlike any other: scrupulously moderate, tolerant, and anti-consumerist; driven by cutting-edge models of child development and infused with dollops of real Christian love. (Rogers was in fact an ordained Presbyterian minister.)
At the same time, his worldview was steeped in traditional values: discipline, modesty, self-control — preparing children for the real world of routine and responsibility. And he was training the parents of the future, delivering his message across the “vast wasteland” of television and directly into people’s living rooms.
Had I never met the renowned children’s TV host and educator, I might be tempted to dismiss the current wave of affection for Rogers as just so much nostalgia — for an era, and for an idea of TV, education, and civil discourse that has been effectively buried.
A lot has happened in the 50 years since Rogers’s show went national; so much atrocity has poured through the minds of successive generations. What would Rogers, a lifelong Republican who died in 2003, make of today’s experience of childhood, pocked with school shootings, social media, and a bully-like president? I’m not sure if his brand of empathy could survive this climate.
An aura of saintliness hangs over the creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and it’s well deserved. Time and again he landed squarely on the right side of history, actively defending everything from civil rights and the sanctity of public television to home taping television shows, a controversial issue during the VCR’s early days. Rogers defended the practice before Congress because he thought it would better enable families to watch their favorite shows together.
Whatever the form taken by his deeply held and rigorously practiced values — Christian, liberal, conservative — Rogers never preached. He never told children what to think, but tried to help them develop the tools to think for themselves.
For a long time I was dismissive of Rogers’s character on TV, But in the few minutes I spent with him he won me over entirely, giving me the rare opportunity to square the person with the persona. That was one of the side benefits of spending the formative years of my life actually living in Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood.
Adam Eisenstat is a longtime professional writer, whose work can be found at www.AdamEisenstat.com.