October 11, 2011

Mister Rogers and the Child

I just loved Mister Rogers' Neighborhood when I was a kid. I remember it so vaguely, though I do have very clear memories of visiting the Children's Museum in Pittsburgh and seeing the actual neighborhood in person.  That was pretty darn cool.

I haven't revisited it, though, because somehow it seems unseemly to love Mister Rogers in my generation.  He is one of those childish things we have put away now that we are men.

We shouldn't have done so.  Fred Rogers believed and lived according to the Gospel mandate "be like the little children" as no other man in our present day has. His celebrity was balanced by his humility and genuine, deep-felt care for everyone he met and came to know.

I learned this reading Tom Junod's incredible profile of Fred Rogers (who died in 2003). I am actually speechless--I cannot come up with the proper words to describe this piece, except that it is surprisingly personal and beautifully crafted.  It's a long piece, so I have excerpted some of my favorite clips below, but I really encourage you to read the whole essay.  It will reward your time, I promise you.
"I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?" On his computer, the boy [with cerebral palsy] answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, "I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?" And now the boy didn't know how to respond. He was thunderstruck. Thunderstruck means that you can't talk, because something has happened that's as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble. The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn't know if he could do it, he said he would, he said he'd try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn't talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.

As for Mister Rogers himself … well, he doesn't look at the story in the same way that the boy did or that I did. In fact, when Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being so smart--for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself--and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me at first with puzzlement and then with surprise. "Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn't ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession."

...Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn't have an umbrella, and he couldn't find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn't even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.

...He went onstage to accept Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and there, in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, ‘All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are … Ten seconds of silence.’ And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked … and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds … and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.

Also: A lovely collection of letters between Mister Rogers and a young fan, and that fan's father on Letters of Note.


  1. I'd never heard those stories about him - amazing! I think it was Jenny McCarthy of all people who once said "If guys want to learn to be sensitive, watch Mr. Rodgers. He's not babyish, he's sensitive." It's a shame that some conservatives blame his "you are special" message for the current entitlement epidemic. He just wanted to help children see themselves as God saw them.

  2. exactly, Sarah! I think the Emmy story really summs that up well--he was in command of an entire audience that evening, and brought them to tears just by being himself.