Today, I want to talk about Mister Rogers.
It was around three years ago when I first started thinking deeply about the iconic children’s television host. Things were getting more than a little chaotic in the world, and it seemed that everywhere I turned, people were being terrible to each other. Really terrible. Some of them were even people I knew personally, and often more than not, this behavior was shocking to me. I sat in my cozy living room, watching a lot of disturbing events unfolding, listening to people I grew up with laughing at the pain of others, and I wondered where it had all gone so wrong. I wondered what was so different about their lives that had made them turn out like that, instead of the loving, caring people they had been raised to be, and in order to distance myself from the hurt they were causing, I began searching for something to bring me a sense of inner peace, something that would calm the distress that the social media schadenfreude and the constant influx of bad news had caused me.
And then I remembered Mister Rogers.
Fred Rogers was more than just a staple of my TV diet when I was a child. The zip-up cardigans, the tie shoes, his gentle way of speaking, they were all part of the soft fuzziness of my childhood. I remember curling up in front of the TV and watching those orangey yellow crayons whizzing by, being fascinated at how things were made and grateful to Mister Rogers for making it possible for me to see that. And the sounds of the show are seared into my memory: the cheery ‘ding ding’ of Trolley as it rolled from the house into the Land of Make Believe; Lady Aberlin’s airy voice; the rising piano as it burst into the theme song; Mr. McFeely’s chirp of “Speedy delivery!”; the jam sessions at Negri’s Music Shop; Fred Rogers’ quiet, placid way of speaking. All of these made up such a special part of my youth, so it’s not a surprise that my thoughts returned to those days of visiting the crayon factory when things got a little too crazy in real life.
Part of Fred Rogers’ reappearance in my life was in thanks to reading down my Goodreads Want-To-Read list. I’d marked a few books about him as want-to-read who knows how long ago, and this was when I gladly began picking them up. First up on the list was one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. The premise of the book sounded wonderful: a reporter, struggling with his personal life, strikes up a friendship with Fred Rogers. Madigan’s marriage was crumbling, and his relationship with his own father was rocky, and so he turned to the gentle television host, writing him and asking if Fred Rogers could be a stand-in surrogate father and be proud of the person Madigan was trying to be. I opened the cover, flipped to the first page, and began reading.
Within several sentences, I was full-on sobbing.
It’s not often that a book moves me as deeply as this one. The friendship- the love– between Madigan and Rogers was deep, rooted in faith and the firmly held belief that we are all worthy of being loved exactly as we are right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow and change and become better versions of ourselves: it just means that it’s okay to be who we are and that we’re loveable solely for being that. As their friendship progressed, Madigan was able to repair the rift in his marriage and even become closer with his father, all with Fred Rogers reminding him in the background, through phone calls and letters and visits, that he was proud of him.
This book is deeply moving. It’s a reminder to us all that we’re loveable just the way we are- and so are the people around us, a message that is sorely lacking in society these days. When I look around me, a lot of what I see being pushed is that others are not worthy of our love, our care; they’re too poor, too foreign, too different, and thus should be treated differently, the exact opposite of what Mister Rogers taught and stood for. Much like John Pavlovitz’s A Bigger Table, this book was a good reminder for me that love is indeed the answer and that I need to act out of kindness, always, even when it’s difficult. I’m Proud of You is absolutely a five-star book for me. While I’m not particularly religious, I did enjoy the faith-based aspects of this book; the faith of Fred Rogers is more akin to the religious teachings I grew up with: love others, treat them well, accept and love others for who they are, and help them to grow into their best selves. It’s not something I’ve seen enough of lately, and it was a comfort to find it in this book.
Soon after, I picked up Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long. Make no doubt about it: the soft-spoken Mister Rogers was indeed radical and subversive. Not in an in-your-face way; never once did he scream his message or incite violence to make a point. Fred Rogers quietly nudged the culture around him in the way he knew it should go. He regularly included people of color and people with disabilities on his show because he wanted society to accept them more readily and with open, loving arms. He advocated for peace and against war, turned the idea of traditional gender roles upside down by highlighting working mothers and diaper-changing stay-at-home fathers, showed that eating a vegetarian diet was one way to care for the planet (did you know Fred Rogers was an original financer of Vegetarian Times magazine?), interviewed disabled neighbors and talked with them about their disabilities and their lives, pushed for racial equality, and spotlighted blue collar workers and professions. He told kids it was okay to be scared, to be sad and cry, that talking about their feelings was normal. His was a voice of love, acceptance, and inclusion in a culture that far too often pushed hatred, divisiveness, separation, and cruelty. This book highlights the ways Mister Rogers’ deeply held beliefs were made manifest in his show, and it was fascinating to see how, for instance, his pacifism turned up in the scripts for The Land of Make Believe. I’ve rewatched some of those episodes with my daughter, and the message stands strong and still valid today: war is scary and hurtful and is something to be avoided, no matter how much work it takes.
And of course I read The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. This is, surprisingly, the first full-length biography that chronicles the history of the TV host and advocate. King covers the events of Rogers’ life, to be sure, but he also humanizes him, highlighting his sense of humor and his struggles as a parent in a way that made me both laugh and nod vigorously, because if even Mister Rogers was baffled by how to effectively parent teenagers, maybe I’m not doing so badly after all. But even as he writes about Fred’s use of swear words (oh yes, even Mister Rogers!) and the pranks pulled on the Neighborhood set, King still maintains an air of reverence for him, and reading this was like a warm hug that lasted all 416 pages.
These books have affected me deeply over the past few years. Though he passed away in 2003, Mister Rogers lives on through the enduring and heartfelt legacy he left behind. He reappeared in my life at a time where I was struggling with so many things, including terrible sleep deprivation. I desperately needed someone to tell me that I was still loveable even though I felt like I was failing badly in just about every aspect of life, that the hatred I saw around me was not normal and not okay, that loving my neighbor- and myself- was the right thing to do. And I found that again in being one of Mister Rogers’ neighbors. To remind me of all this, I used the birthday money my paternal grandmother had sent me to purchase a Mister Rogers necklace (from the Etsy store of rabbithole33). It’s a lovely, well-made item, and a great reminder that I’m lovable just the way I am…and so is everyone else. I wear it when I need to remember that, and it helps. I’m far from perfect, but I’m absolutely trying to be the person Mister Rogers knew I could be, in word, thought, and deed. I hope he would be proud of me, too.