With the voice of a grandfather, the smile of our favorite teacher, and the calm of a Buddhist monk, Fred Rogers brought an air of quiet kindness with him every time he opened the door of that little yellow house. Singing as he changed his suit jacket for a sweater (all knitted by his mother), his shoes for sneakers, he’d ask us to be his neighbor and we knew that, for at least the next half hour, we were in good hands.
He entered show business in 1951, when he decided he didn’t want to pursue the path he’d started toward seminary. After experiencing the advent of television, and recognizing its potential (good and bad), he switched directions, getting a job at NBC as a writer for several musical shows.
When it became apparent that his desire to educate and enrich young audiences wouldn’t come on commercial TV, he moved to public station WQED in Pittsburgh. Rogers worked as a puppeteer for a local children’s show and it was here that he developed the memorable characters who would inhabit his own Neighborhood of Make Believe.
Fast forward through a move to Toronto and the first version of his show, and by 1966 Fred was back in Pittsburgh. Three years later, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood would debut.
It was not the place to be if one wanted bells and whistles. There were no smart-alecky characters or crazy songs to catch your attention. Mr. Roger’s voice was warm and never, ever loud. He would go about his little home talking as if you were in the room, sharing his thoughts and letting you in on the lesson for the day.
Whether it was dealing with anger, starting school, or visiting a crayon factory, he served as a personal guide, all the while tapping into your imagination and sometimes even your fears and anxieties. Regardless of subject, he remained fiercely committed to authenticity. He wasn’t acting when he spoke, and he wanted his audience to know it:
“One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
I don’t remember if I watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood when I was little – I’m guessing I probably did, it was the perfect speed for a quiet kid who valued consistency over excitement. I have the vaguest memory of being scared by lady Elaine, who had a red nose and cheeks (rosacea?) and an odd voice, which I didn’t realize was Roger’s. But it wasn’t really until I was an adult that I could appreciate how the show was such a perfect reflection of the man.
He was just – kind. It was baked in and readily visible whether he was doing a 4 1/2-hour interview for the Archive of American Television or accepting a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award, when he encouraged the audience to take 10 seconds to think about someone who had helped them succeed. It was something to watch that room fall silent – afterwards, Rogers said a few more words of thanks before heading off stage.
For the children who counted on him – relied upon his showing up each day to impart a bit of wisdom, he was like the warmest blanket. For he went beyond the “easy” topics to tackle big ones, like sadness and grief (using the death of his goldfish), and gun violence. To each of these, he brought the reassuring tone and understanding that marked his entire life.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the news, the fear, the rush to get somewhere. Being an adult means we’re supposed to know where we’re headed. And while I may no longer need a lesson on what the first day of school will be like, it would be kind of nice to have Fred Rogers around to explain some of the other stuff that lingers beyond childhood.
I think about his Neighborhood and the friends who lived there, from Daniel Tiger to Mr. McFeeley, the mailman. Every character had a place and even when there were problems, we could be sure that Mr. Rogers would have an answer.
Many times after a tragedy someone, somewhere, will bring up Mr. Rogers. As we struggle with the insanity that seems to pervade the world, even 14 years after his death the strength of his voice and message rings true.
In an episode about gun violence, where he talked with kids about why people do bad things, he reminded us of a lesson from his own mother, repeated again after this week’s bombing in Manchester. For after the terror, there was news about hotels where children could be safe; taxi drivers giving free rides to get people home or to help. Mr. Rogers has told us about these folks, too, and on his simple statement, helps us to keep room for the light that often shines brightest in tragedy: