The Holy Ground of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

“I saw people throwing pies in each others’ faces, and I thought: ‘This could be a wonderful tool. Why is it being used this way?’” So says a lanky, exceedingly soft-spoken Presbyterian minister with the classic middle America name of Fred Rogers, a man who turned children’s television in the latter part of the 20th century into a kind of ode to basic human decency rather than the casually cruel and empty-headed drivel it often was and still too often remains.

By the end of his 31-year tenure ministering to children’s souls via a daily half-hour public television show, Rogers had earned such a revered place in American culture that a documentary about his life’s work, entitled, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is currently packing theaters around the country with adults who, if the viewing I took in yesterday and again this morning is any indication, mostly sob their way through the film’s 94 minutes.

And by the way, that “Fred” in front of his last name? Just a birth certificate thing. His actual name was “Mister.”

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So: what is it we’re all crying about?

At least a hundred answers to that question, I think. One of them, as many commentators have pointed out, has to do with the timely contrast of Mister Rogers’ quiet-but-relentless exhortations to be kind and to appeal to the best in people and ourselves with the current political climate, about which no more need be said lest I lapse into a decidedly un-Mister Rogers-like rant.

When we do quell the tumult in quiet moments of repose with an infant, or nature, or a person like Mister Rogers, it is as if we have touched the very face of God and been affirmed in all that is right and true and welcoming of our place in the world.

But our tears are about a whole lot else, too, and most of them boil down to something along these lines, it seems to me: We know, deep in our bones, goodness and a pure heart when we see them. We do so because we recognize the parts of those that live in ourselves, beneath all the jadedness, hurt and fear that work so hard to shove other emotions out of the way in the rough-and-tumble of adult life.

When we do quell the tumult in quiet moments of repose with an infant, or nature, or a person like Mister Rogers, it is as if we have touched the very face of God and been affirmed in all that is right and true and welcoming of our place in the world.

And at bottom, we long to express and live in those best parts whenever we can. So when someone like Fred Rogers or the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis gives us permission to go there by the very nature of their being-in-the-world, we cannot help but be happy-sad—happy for the moments we inhabit that place and the further possibilities it exposes to us, sad for the knowledge that we so often fall short.

But guess what?

The last person in the world who would ever wag a finger at us for that shortcoming is Mister Rogers. That’s because, “You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

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It is almost impossible to underestimate the quiet ferocity with which Mister Rogers held and propagated that view of human beings, and of what we need to do to cultivate the best in them. In one of countless deeply affecting scenes in this film, Rogers speaks into the microphone at a packed Senate hearing in 1969, trying to save public television from the budget axe of the Nixon administration, which wanted to divert the money to the Vietnam War.

He is addressing Senator John Pastore, the gruff, suffer-no-fools chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, who had never seen “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and was growing visibly impatient with all the stirring testimonials for why PBS should be saved.

Picking up on these cues, Rogers tells Pastore he will forsake his prepared address, and asks the senator’s permission to instead recite the lyrics to “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” The song is a plaintive acknowledgement that children can be angry, which, along with its implied permission for them to feel what they feel, also offers guidance on how to manage it.

Pastore, poker-faced, assents, and this is what he hears from undoubtedly the most earnest witness ever to grace a Senate hearing room:

What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?

It’s great to be able to stop
When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
And think this song:

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.

As Rogers finishes, the audience in the Senate hearing room (and the movie theater) seems to holds its collective breath. Pastore finally responds, “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

***

Even more radical in its barely-under-the-radar way was Rogers’ battle against racism, something he never addressed directly but put right out there by several wickedly prudent casting decisions. Against the backdrop of the inner city violence and fear engulfing the nation during the show’s 1968 debut, Mister Rogers hosted Mrs. Saunders, an African-American teacher paying him a visit with her racially mixed class.

Here we are and here we can be, visiting and enjoying each other as neighbors. No big deal, is it?

Oh, yes it was.

A bigger deal still was the creation of Officer Francois Clemmons, an African-American policeman pressed into service on decency and tolerance’s behalf just four months after Martin Luther King’s assassination. In a scene reaching right back into the host’s ministerial training and deeply held Christianity, Mister Rogers, his bare feet dangling in a kid’s wading pool, invites Officer Clemmons to take a load off by joining him.

So there they are, two white feet and two black, sharing the water, now consecrated by a deeply symbolic, biblical act of charity, humility and welcome, complete with Rogers helping to towel off Clemmons’ feet. (The scene in the movie finishes with a quiet reproof as news footage shows a white motel manager in Florida furiously dumping muriatic acid in a swimming pool in order to drive out a racially mixed group that was protesting the facility’s segregationist policy.)

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Years later, the footbath scene is repeated, with Rogers even more assiduous about leaning over to help dry Clemmons’ feet after they are done. Rogers could not have been more pointedly—though gently—inviting his fellow Christians around the country who still harbored racial prejudice in their hearts to emulate their all-loving, all-humbling, all-forgiving savior, at long last. (See it in the Vimeo clip here, with Clemmons showing his operatic chops on a classic Neighborhood song.)

Clemmons also happened to be gay in real life, a fact never raised in the series but which became an issue after he’d decided to go to a gay nightclub in town and word got back to Rogers about it. As Clemmons tells it in the movie, Rogers says to him, “Oh no, you can’t be doing that anymore.”

A few critics have taken Rogers to task for this stance, which strikes me as short-sighted. Regardless of anyone’s convictions, the world, or at least American television audiences and PBS underwriters, was not ready for a gay police officer 50 years ago, and the show surely would have sunk under the ensuing controversy. So one must ask, as surely Rogers himself did: Would the cause of justice and acceptance have been advanced if he had taken a stand on this issue at that time and his show was canceled, all the ensuing 30 years of goodness, tolerance and love it projected unrealized?

Sometimes, though certainly not always, the most prudent and progressive thing to do is to bide one’s time, until the time is most, or at least a little more, right.

And for the record, Clemmons was among multiple spokespeople in the film weeping at the memories evoked by interviewers about Rogers, declaring the unconditional love he felt from the older man to be the most impactful experience of his life.

***

The only time Rogers flashes any anger in this film is when he bewails much of mainstream media’s craven race to the bottom with its cartoon violence, cynicism and vulgarity. One does not have to be a stuffed shirt or withdrawn Mennonite to quickly tire of the dizzying, aggressive pace and tone of much television programming, with its explicit violence, clueless adults, smart-aleck kids and deafening laugh tracks.

Rogers looks directly into the camera in his later days, sets his jaw uncharacteristically and intones, “I would hope that anyone who sets out to produce mass programming for children would have the same respect for them that I do.” 

Having taped his final season’s Neighborhood segments in December 2000, the shows began airing in August, 2001. Weeks later came 9-11, very possibly the starkest ever challenge to all that Rogers held dear about humanity and his assurances to the young that they will always be not only loved, but protected by the adults in their lives.

Clearly troubled, Rogers taped a series of public service announcements aimed at parents on how to talk to kids about horrific events.

After all, he’d had plentiful practice through the tempests of the ’60s and beyond, including a tenderly drawn scene in which the puppet character Daniel Striped Tiger, acknowledged to be Rogers’ alterego, asks the lovely and compassionate Lady Aberlin two days after Bobby Kennedy was killed in 1968, “What does ‘assassination’ mean?”

Rogers never shirked such issues, believing with all his heart and might that children could and should be talked to about them, their questions and worries addressed in loving tones of compassion for the fallen and support for the survivors.

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,’” he famously said, reaffirming a faith in humanity’s essential goodness that can easily escape us in these fractured times.

He elicited that goodness at every opportunity by looking directly into the camera and imagining he was talking to one person, heart to heart, in the most personal terms he could muster. Never far from his mind was his deep conviction that “The space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground. A lot happens—a lot happens—there.”

Indeed it does, or at least “can,” when the camera is in the right person’s hands, guided by some ethos beyond commerce and its lowest common denominators.

In Misters Rogers’ hands, and in his heart, what happens revolves mostly from and around love, the be-all and end-all, the cause and effect, the mover and the moved, of all creation.

“The only thing that changes the world is when someone gets the idea that love can abound, and that it can be shared,” he says, just before this movie ends and not long before his own life is taken from him with stomach cancer at age 74.

Imagine that: a world where love abounds, is never subject to drought, nor to fear that begets greedy accumulation. Where tears of joy flow along a generous river in which we can cool our feet on a hot day and ask our fellow humans within earshot, “Won’t you join me? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

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Edited version of this is in the movie (with a bonus surprise in the credits as well…)

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Mister Rogers sweater photo from the Smithsonian Museum 
https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmuseumofamericanhistory

Other Rogers photos in the public domain

11 comments to The Holy Ground of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

  • Mary  says:

    In Quaker theology the overarching principle is that there is “that of God in every person” and it is each human’s mission to both seek and respond to that, in ourselves and in others. Fred Rogers (no matter his denomination) clearly understood this and was faithful to that mission each and every day of his life.

    I think we cry in the presence of this for several reasons: because it is a profound relief to know there actually is, however hidden at times, such goodness and bravery and devotion in this world, that it really exists and it is there FOR us…and also that we too can also BE that good and that brave as well.

    There is a quote that seems fitting here:
    A man never stands so tall as when he bends to help a child.

    Fred Rogers obviously stood very tall, with the courage and compassion of his convictions: a gentle giant.

    We can all be such giants.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Love it – thanks Andrew for such a delightful post and Mary for your inspiring reply… reminds me of the Dali Lama’s reply when asked about his religion -“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
    Clearly Fred Rogers is a Presbyterian Bodhisattva!! Rings so true after traveling the Coast of Maine the past week and just meeting random people at the b n b, bike shop, restaurants, in lines, – and marveling at how easy it is to connect when one gets out of me and into “we”… kindness is a form of magic… cuts right through the class/race/age/etc superficialities that often prevent connection… Mr. Rogers was a pro at connecting… Can’t wait to bath myself in his good vibes…

  • Lisa  says:

    So many great memories watching this show growing up. Every show was a wonderful teaching tool set to some really nice music. I will always hold Mr. Rogers in high regards. Thanks for this post!

  • Al  says:

    Thanks for that Andrew. Good to reflect on all the complex emotions that come with tears. One of my musical heroes Loudon Wainwright was in Montgomery, Alabama the day Fred Rogers died and wrote the following song. It makes me grateful for all of those who express so beautifully what it means to be human. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc_WuJ0iJe4

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Mary, I saw this film with a fellow UU and we both made involuntary noises when one of the interviewees used a phrase along the lines of Mister Rogers believing in every person’s “inherent dignity” or some such. If the Presbyterians didn’t have a claim on his lifelong fidelity, we would surely have claimed him as a UU, though we would have been glad to split him with our brethren the Quakers as well. :-)

    And Kevin, he absolutely works as an Eastern Hindu or Buddhist, too. I don’t know whether he & the Dalai Lama ever crossed paths (what a fine guest slot that would have been for the latter!), but I am certain they would have “recognized” each other in the deepest sense.

    Lisa, so many things stick out in this film, but his interactions with the kids—and the looks on their faces when he engaged them—are something I will never forget. That pixie dust surely landed on his television audience, too, to hear an awful lot of people tell it. Glad you were one of them.

    Al, oh geez, Loudon is one of my musical heroes and once again, you have sent a song my way I had no idea about. I love this, in all its lamentation. Loudon truly is “a very special person. There is only one like him in the whole world.”

  • Tamara  says:

    Thank you for this Andrew. Mr. Rogers has been an inspiration to me. As a latch-key key of the 70’s he was instrumental in my upbringing… how lucky am I!! I have been trying to make time to go see this movie and after reading this, I will try harder.

  • Mary  says:

    Andrew, I do admire your wise restraint in not letting the contrast between the choices made by Fred Rogers and those choices being made by our administration take away from the beauty of the film and its overall message. The life of Fred Rogers deserves this tribute in its own right.

    However, having worked in the field of health and early childhood education for many years, I feel I must make a comment here about the atrocities currently being visited upon the most vulnerable individuals in our country: children. There is of course the outrageous decisions to separate asylum seeking families that have resulted in nothing less than trauma for so many children, their families and indeed to all of us who live in the United States and are witness to these events. There is also the steady dismantling of programs that serve children and families at the national, state and local level, funding cuts that have eliminated assistance that help children grow to be well-educated, healthy and productive citizens. The shortsightedness of these actions on an economic and political level is ridiculous; the betrayal of human dignity and worth is appalling. It has been said that a society can be judged by how it treats its children. How are we stacking up?

    Fred Rogers clearly believed in the imminent worth of every child and made that belief manifest in his ordinary encounters and his overall career. It seems that for us to follow his example we must not only bring it into our daily interactions but also take it with us into the voting booth.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Tamara, it strikes me that “He was instrumental in my upbringing” is a helluva thing to be able to say about a TV character. It vindicates everything Mister Rogers said about the power of the medium to mold minds and lives, and doubles down on the tragedy and lost opportunity of the rot that infests so much modern television and other media. Thank you very much for sharing your experience.

    Mary, oh, oh, yes. Dismal is as dismal does, to VERY loosely paraphrase another media figure of recent times who will actually be playing Mister Rogers in the upcoming biopic. And predictably enough, PBS is yet again on the chopping block in Washington, where it lands every time a certain political party comes into power there. (I am being circumspect again, in deference to the always well-mannered hero of this post…)

    Truly, however, none of the early childhood and youth program budget cuts that are currently among the many rages roiling our nation’s capital should escape this baseline question, the answer to which I think we can discern quite well in advance:

    What would Mister Rogers do?

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Thanks for the review. Claire and I are going to see the film tomorrow. Hopefully, your glowing report will be ours as well. One side note. I was born in a small town in Southern Illinois about halfway between Springfield and St. Louis. I was baptized Catholic, but by the time I reached 1st grade my mother had became dissatisfied with the Vatican and its rigid doctrine. She turned to Unitarianism. She felt its emphasis on the “oneness of God,” its multiculturalism, and its “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” attitude made it a perfect fit for the family. Unfortunately, the nearest UU church was in St. Louis about 60 miles away. So, every Sunday, rain or shine, we packed into our blue Ford station wagon and made our Sunday trek through cornfields and other small towns until we finally hit Alton’s bridge which spanned the Mississippi and led us into the big city of Stan Musial, Ken Boyer, Bob Pettit, and John David Crow (no Gateway Arch back then). When we moved to Eagle Rock in 1963, we continued to attend a Unitarian church, only minutes away on California St. in Pasadena. Although I must confess I was more interested in the donuts and OJ after the service than the Sunday school book, “Jesus, the Carpenter’s Son,” the church’s emphasis on kindness and acceptance of all persons has remained with me to this very day. Incidentally, it called itself the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      In my estimation, sixty miles is a long way to go for anything besides a great woman, Robert, so I feel for ya with that trek your family took—your mom must’ve been quite smitten with UUism! I had no idea about this (religious) part of your history, so it comes as a revelation. And quite coincidentally, we held my brother’s memorial service nearly eight years ago now at that very Neighborhood UU church you attended. He wasn’t a UU, but if he had been forced to claim a religion after the very lapsed Catholicism of our youth, he would most certainly have been a UU.

      I am also very happy to have Bob Pettit mentioned for surely the first time in this blog’s five-and-a-half year history, so thank you for that, too. :-)

      • Cindi Donald  says:

        I wish our administrator at “the home” was more like Mr. Rogers. Group senior living is by far the most challenging life situation I’ve faced thus far. More time for your blogs, though!

        Love, Cindi

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