Why Mister Rogers was more than just puppets, shoes and sweaters
Updated: Feb 11
“The greatest gift you can ever give is your honest self.” -Mister Rogers
I recently saw the documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor,’ detailing the life and career of Mister Rogers. While I love superhero and spaceship extravaganzas, I think this may be the best movie I’ll see this summer, if not this year.
When I walked out of the theater, I thought back to all of the times that Mister Rogers has been there for me in my life. And then, I remembered an odd memory from about 5 or 6 years ago.
Have you ever have had one of those “splinters?” A memory of an annoying moment that you shrug off but randomly comes back to you years later? This was one of those.
I was working for a legal publishing company as an account manager and on this particular day, I was meeting with the director of a library and several librarians. Somehow, Mister Rogers came up in the conversation.
This director rolled his eyes and did a really poor imitation of Mister Rogers, speaking with a lisp (something Mister Rogers never did by the way) and saying something incredibly glib and childish. His message was clear. Mister Rogers was a ridiculous joke.
It wasn’t funny and no one really laughed.
I was angry.
Mister Rogers had recently came back into my life like an old friend that you hadn’t seen in years but who hadn’t changed: a constant during troubled times. I was angry the same way you might be if someone took a potshot at one of your grandparents.
So who was Mister Rogers?
For some of you reading this, you may remember him as the genial guy who hosted a television show back in the 1960s to the early 2000s. The show is notable for its cardboard sets, low tech effects, puppets, and simple songs. Mister Rogers would also change sweaters and shoes every time he entered his television house.
To me, Mister Rogers was more than a neighbor. He was a friend. For a time, he was my only friend.
Growing up, I was an awkward kid. I had really messy hair, I looked down at my shoes when I walked, and I had parents that spoke with accents. This made me a prime target for jokes and bullies on the playground, in the hallways, and on the bus ride home.
Some days, I would come home in tears feeling the weight of grade school loneliness. I was also what they call a “latch-key kid.” Both of my parents worked hard, putting in long hours to make ends meet. They wanted me to have a better life. This meant that after-school activities was either being dropped off at my mom’s little shop or when I got older, being dropped off at the little apartment we lived in.
I would turn on the TV and there would be Mister Rogers. From the moment the introduction started with the little miniature town to when he would appear at the door with a great big smile, I felt all my sadness and worries melt away.
He was also a teacher.
He would remind me that we all feel lonely sometimes, even angry. He would share important life lessons including when to say please and thank you and why it’s important to feed your fish.
As I came into my own, I outgrew Mister Rogers. By the time I was out of grade school, he was a pleasant but faded memory.
And yet, he never left me. There were times in my life during college, even grad school when I would feel sad or stressed. I would turn on the TV, flip some channels, and there he was, older, grayer but still talking to me as if I was his neighbor.
I would watch an episode, taking a 30 minute break from life, and afterward, I would feel like everything was going to be OK.
As I got out of school and started the next phase of my life, I forgot about Mister Rogers for a long time. I went thru some difficult moments.
I was miserable in my early career.
I got my heart broken.
I lost my mom.
Meanwhile, the larger world was going thru some very dark and difficult times.
I remember the day of the Sandy Hook tragedy, coming home, turning on the news and feeling angry, sad, helpless, like we were all drowning in a cloud of despair.
Then, I saw a quote that people were sharing all over social media. It was a statement Mister Rogers had made right after 9/11.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
I read and reread that quote, saying it out loud like a mantra. I focused on every single word.
And then, I turned off the news. I went to Amazon Prime, not really looking for anything in particular and came across Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I put on an episode. It had been many years since I had last seen him and there he was. He had long since passed in 2003 but I felt like he was alive. He was there as I remembered him, giving hope, comfort, and reminding you that the world still has good people in it.
I started to watch a few more episodes and then I realized that Mister Rogers was far more important than simply a figure of my childhood nostalgia.
He didn’t just play catchy tunes on the piano or teach me how crayons are made.
He also talked about subjects that most grownups would never touch: death, divorce, and conflict. He did so in a way that was never pandering or condescending.
I went back to some of the episodes that aired long before I was born.
He tackled race relations during the 1960s in a way that was subtle and yet so effective. At the time, it was illegal in many parts of the country for African-Americans to swim in public swimming pools.
Mister Rogers sent a message to the world by having his neighbor, an actor portraying an African-American police officer, stop by to soak his feet in a tub. He was bold, radical, and as I learned an important, if not subtle figure during the Civil Rights movement.
Then, I learned that Mister Rogers wasn’t just a television personality. During this same turbulent decade, the Nixon administration wanted to cut funding for public television. Fred Rogers went to testify before a Senate Subcommittee on Communications. All the other speakers gave flowery speeches on the importance of public television and if you watch the full hearing, you can see that Senator Pastore, the head of the subcommittee is getting annoyed and itching to cut the funding.
Then, Mister Rogers got his turn to testify.
The senator, sarcastic and gruff, let him know that he was tired of hearing rehearsed speeches.
Mister Rogers put away his prepared notes and spoke from the heart. He told the senator about his work and how it benefits kids.
You can see that the senator doesn’t know what to make of this man. He’s moved and says “this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days” amidst laughs from people in the galley. But when you look at the senator’s face, you can see he’s deadpan serious. Moreover, he’s convinced by Mister Rogers’ plea.
The senator ended up approving $20M in funding for public television that year.
Mister Rogers was an advocate. But more importantly, he demonstrated that strength isn’t about bluster, ego, or having the loudest voice. Sometimes, the strongest person in the room is the one who shows the most vulnerability.
Rewatch that video.
How many people could pull this off in this day and age?
As for that library director, I realize that my anger was misplaced.
In the documentary, I learned that during his lifetime, Fred Rogers had his fair share of critics and naysayers. I was surprised to learn that when he was invited to speak at Dartmouth’s graduation in 2002, there were protests from some students who thought that Mister Rogers was too childish to be a commencement speaker.
Today, it is remembered and cited as one of the most revered commencement speeches alongside the likes JK Rowling and Steve Jobs. Take a look for yourself.
“Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.”
I wonder if those students who protested feel the same way, 16 years later.
As for Fred Rogers, he never attacked his critics with a knee-jerk reaction or took them to task, the way so many of us are apt to do on social media. Instead, he just kept doing what he does best: being a neighbor, a teacher, and a friend to countless generations of children who watched him growing up.
Watching the documentary and thinking about Mister Rogers today, it’s clear that he will long outlive the few cranky voices who frankly, just didn’t get it.
And now, as I’m writing this, that memory splinter isn’t so sharp anymore.
Thank you, Mister Rogers.
Finally, Mister Rogers was not about Fred Rogers.
Everything Fred Rogers did as the Mister Rogers character, he did for the kids who were watching his show. He was never about himself.
And to some, he was more than a friendly face. He was a saint.
Mister Rogers learned about a little girl who had just undergone a serious medical procedure for a life threatening brain disease. She was a fan of his and when he found out, he went to visit her in the hospital.
He had one condition.
He didn’t want any press or media. He just wanted to see this little girl and let her know, she was going to be ok.
Finally, in the last episode of the show, which aired in August 2001, Fred Rogers didn’t make it a “special” episode of Mister Rogers. There was no fanfare, nothing extraordinary, or unusual about it. In many ways, it was no different than any other episode that aired over the years.
He didn’t want to call any attention to this being his last episode and upset the new generation of kids who were watching his show. He wanted the stations to loop them seamlessly so that they could continue doing its job long after he was gone.
That’s a truly remarkable legacy by someone who never assumed or acted like he was entitled to one.
For some of you, Mister Rogers was that pleasant guy who wore cardigans, sang songs, played with puppets and changed his shoes. But he was more than that.
For many of us, he was a teacher that taught us about the difficult subjects we would face as we grew up and entered a large, sometimes scary world.
He was a friend who always had our back, especially during those tough times.
… he was that neighbor that was always happy to see us even if we hadn’t visited the neighborhood in a while.
‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor‘ is directed by Morgan Neville and produced by Focus Features. It is currently playing in select theaters with a wide release scheduled for later this month and in July. Check here for release dates by location. You can watch episodes of ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ on Amazon Prime and Netflix.
John is the host of Moving Forward, a weekly podcast featuring today’s most inspiring entrepreneurs, leaders, and artists. John is also a TEDx speaker and has been featured in Cracked.com, Authority Magazine, and two pieces for Inc. (‘Find Your Voice‘ and ‘Love of Pie Formula‘). He is the co-author of the adult coloring book, ‘Corporate Cliches.’