We Need Mr. Rogers More Than Ever

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“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”

— Fred Rogers


Fifty years ago, a children’s show titled Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was added to what would eventually be known as the Public Broadcasting Service — PBS. The Rev. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, had been producing and appearing in a number of children’s television shows in Pennsylvania for 15 years. Rogers had a degree in music and was an accomplished pianist and song composer.

My two oldest daughters watched and loved Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I remember them sitting on the floor as close to the television as possible, watching with rapt attention. Daughter Abbie several years later watched it as well. They all still fondly recall the show.

For 33 years, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood filled TV screens across the nation, and generations of children gathered to watch and listen. Mr. Rogers and his puppet characters — King Friday, XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde (patterned after his sister) and Daniel Stripéd Tiger – talked about topics of concern to kids: death of a loved one, physical handicaps, bullying, and war. At a time when swimming pools were still segregated, Mr. Rogers invited his black police officer friend, Officer Clemons, to join him soaking his feet in a wading pool during a hot summer day.

To jaded adults, Mr. Rogers could make an easy target with his gentle voice, goofy cardigans and simple songs. Some of the satires were genuinely funny, such as Eddie Murphy’s on Saturday Night Live. (View here: https://tinyurl.com/ycwjf678) Others were mean-spirited and unkind.

Throughout his long career, Mr. Rogers, who died of cancer in 2003, told children that they were loved, that they were special, and that he accepted them for who they were. He once wrote, “Love isn’t a state of caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is right here and now.” That is consistent with Mr. Rogers’ Christian upbringing and training. He viewed Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as his ministry. As his producer said in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — the recent documentary about him — Mr. Rogers’ formula was to “take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite.”

In the documentary, one senses the steel behind Rogers’s gentle demeanor, especially when he criticized children’s television programming, which was often violent — cartoon characters bonking each other, heroes and villains wielding weapons, commercials peddling sugary products and toy guns. The documentary recounts when Rogers appeared before a Senate subcommittee in 1969 to argue against slashing funding for public television, so more money could be spent on the Vietnam War. He recited a song: What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?

I can stop when I want to.

Can stop when I wish.

Can stop, stop, stop anytime …

And what a good feeling to feel like this!

And know that the feeling is really mine.

Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can.

For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.

The subcommittee’s chairman, the crusty Sen. John Pastore, was visibly moved, saying, “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goose bumps for the last two days,” he said. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”


One has to be mighty cynical not to be moved by Won’t You Be My Neighbor. When My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I watched it last week at the Robinson Film Center in Shreveport — our favorite movie venue — there were few dry eyes. As the film ended, I couldn’t help but wonder how Fred Rogers would explain the horrors taking place today in this country — the mass shootings of children in schools, refugee children wrenched from the arms of their parents, the nearly ubiquitous loss of civility. I am confident he would have known exactly what to say to our children.

He always did. I wish he were still around.


“Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It’s something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength and other words — like aggression and even violence. Real strength is neither male nor female; but is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that any human being can possess.”

— Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003)

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