February 27 won’t be celebrated as a national holiday or marked on the official calendar of saints. But maybe it should be. On this day in 2003, Fred Rogers died of cancer.
I’ll admit that when my children were small, I was simply grateful that Mr. Rogers and “Sesame St.” entertained them for an hour so I could cook dinner. (No coincidence that the two shows appeared during cocktail hour.) Although I overheard the sound track playing in the next room, I didn’t begin to understand what Mr. Rogers was doing until the documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” hit the theaters last fall, and was surprisingly popular.
This ordained Presbyterian minister saw as no one else did the potential in the relatively new medium of television. In the long run, he’d touch more people more deeply than he would’ve by following a more traditional clerical role. His first show launched in 1968 with a ritual that would calm and settle children for the next 33 years: Mr. Rogers would put on his cardigan and tennies, singing his theme song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” Then off he’d roll into explorations, music, intriguing discussions.
His approach wasn’t as simplistic as it might sound. He tackled topics that were on everyone’s mind, like integration, assassination, divorce, bullying, death, and explained them clearly for children. By enjoying a cool wading pool with a black neighbor, their feet mingling side by side, he spoke profoundly about human equality without a word. He encouraged children to feel the whole gamut of emotions: sad and angry were OK too, and needn’t be stuffed. He was deeply present to everyone he interviewed on the show, and to the many children who attended his personal appearances.
When criticized for making a whole generation feel “special,” he asked if that wasn’t the basis for Christianity? And if everyone isn’t special, we’re in trouble! A vocal critic of slick marketing and violent programming for children, he’d be appalled at what’s foisted on them now. One small note of personal delight: my grandchildren know the “Won’t you be my neighbor?” song. When I asked where they’d learned it: “Daniel the Tiger!” Apparently this character who appeared originally on the show when their parents were young lives on now. May another generation profit from the profound insights, compassion and gratitude conveyed by Mr. Rogers.