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Aspiring to Live in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

June 6, 2018

A few days ago I went to see RBG, a full length documentary celebrating the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The movie was wonderful, inspirational, and eye-opening. But it took a back seat to a trailer for a forthcoming movie about another American icon, Fred Rogers.

The trailer for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” featured vignettes of Mr. Rogers with a disabled child, with an African-American friend in a children’s pool, and with small groups of wide-eyed children looking at him in wonderment as he performed low-tech puppet shows and told them silly-but-enchanting stories. It also featured trademark snippets of his show as he shed his outer garments for a cardigan and sung simple songs that assured his viewers that they were beloved human beings.

When Mr. Rogers was on PBS I recall watching it over my older daughter’s shoulders and cynically rolling my eyes. At the time I was a high school disciplinarian in a rough and tumble small town outside of Philadelphia. I thought the world Mr. Rogers lived in was fanciful. No one in Mr. Rogers neighborhood was being busted for smoking dope, engaging in fights with others over petty insults, or struggling to make ends meet. I feared he was presenting my daughter with an unrealistic picture of what she would encounter when she got out in the world. Moreover, as a cynical young adult, I was certain that when Mr. Rogers concluded his performance on the show he probably went to a bar outside the studio and threw down drinks with his buddies and watched the Steelers pound opponents into submission.

Watching the trailer at the Nugget theater with a group of aging baby boomers who in all probability shared my experience as a PBS parent, I was stunned to find I was touched deeply as Mr. Rogers explained death, divorce and racism to open-minded three and four year olds in his soft and reassuring voice. I shared this experience with a group of friends and found that they, too, had the same experience watching the trailer. When I spoke to my younger daughter who is now 40 about my experience watching the trailer, I found that she had seen it five times and cried each time.

What is it about Mr. Rogers neighborhood that triggers such a response? Upon looking at my own reaction to the trailer I came to the conclusion that I was touched because I really wanted to live in a neighborhood like Mr. Rogers’ and I really hoped to help create a world like his. And now, after a long career working in public education and looking at the state of affairs in our nation, I can see that such a world seems more and more implausible.

Later in my life I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Rogers. My late wife, a fabric artist, served as an assistant to  Jan Newbury-Meyers for a course at Haystack Mountain in Deer Isle, Maine, and the two of them became fast friends.  Jan’s husband, Sam Newbury, worked with Fred Rogers and when we visited Jan at her home in Pittsburgh, Sam shared stories about his workplace, which sounded as wholesome and warm as the show itself. When we joined Sam and Jan on Sunday at the Presbyterian Church she attended we had an opportunity to meet their good friend Fred Rogers. He was as genuine and radiant in person as he was on television. He greeted us with the same glint in his eyes as he greeted his guests with on TV. He seemed enthused to meet US even though at that point in his life he had undoubtedly encountered thousands of people who watched his show, and even though I felt we were invading his privacy by meeting him at church.      After meeting him, it was clear that Mr. Rogers never went to the bar and talked about the Steelers… but it was equally clear that he understood the Steelers fans and would welcome them into his neighborhood.

I believe that while living in a world that resembles Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is seemingly implausible, it IS possible for each of us to create such a world by emulating Mr. Rogers. If we are willing to welcome strangers into our communities, to lend a helping hand to those in need, and to accept those who view the world differently from us we could all live in Mr. Rogers’ world.



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