My generation ate breakfast with Captain Kangaroo and afternoon snack with Mister Rogers but Fred Rogers ruled in our household. (Sorry, Captain) He was soft-spoken, gentle and polite. He treated all people with respect and I don’t think he had a rude bone in his body.
Fred’s goals as a young man didn’t include life in Make-Believe. His degree was in music composition and he had plans to attend seminary when he saw his first television in his parents’ home. He immediately realized its potential to nurture and enlighten children. An idea formed, a plan, a plot, a strategy to inform and educate via TV. An activist was born! He would fight the fight ” for the broadcasting of grace through the land”.
It was a passion and as time went by, it became a one man revolution which Fred Rogers fought valiantly for over 40 years. He began his career in television in 1953 in Pittsburgh, at a community TV station, the first of its kind in the country. A year later he was co-producing a new program, The Children’s Corner. He never veered from his self-appointed mission from that time forward. Upon his ordination in 1962, the Presbyterian Church charged him with serving children and their families through television. He was a pioneer, a spokesman for children addressing childhood development, programming and education at a time when children were largely unseen, unheard, their needs rarely considered. It was a battle some people say Rogers lost. I’ve seen evidence to the contrary.
I knew two little girls who were devoted fans. Mister Rogers, King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat, X the Owl, and Queen Sara Saturday (she was named for Fred’s wife, Sara) visited each afternoon, sharing ideas, making new friends and exploring the world around them. For these girls, Make-Believe was a delightful diversion. On the other side of the screen, Mister Rogers came home from work, put on a sweater (his mother knitted all of them) and sneakers, and walked with them through the Neighborhood, visiting the businesses and homes of the community, while teaching his young friends intangibles such as big and small, loud and quiet, happy and sad, and kindness, even death.
In one episode, he discovered a fish floating in the tank; with calm and decorum, he gathered his tools along with the fish, walked to a favorite tree in his yard, dug a small grave and had a brief service for the creature. This task completed, Mister Rogers returned to his kitchen, talking softly all the while about living things and their life spans, everything being a part of God’s divine creation. Fred was comfortable talking about God. He seemed comfortable in his own skin, his voice never showing signs of aggravation or stress. On Make-Believe, the kids were never in the way, never a bother, never under foot.
He talked to people with disabilities, teachers, doctors, policemen, all colors, cultures, and professions for thirty minutes, five days a week, allowing the girls a glimpse of life beyond their four walls, people different from them, but still, just people. Mister Rogers, with his lovable citizens in the Neighborhood Of Make-Believe, created 865 episodes; it is the longest running program on public television. The girls enjoyed each and every one.
I’ve watched the series with my granddaughter over the past two years (thank goodness for Youtube) and can say with total honesty, the characters have lost none of their charm. He educated and cared for generations of children through the lens of a camera. Along the way, he won three Daytime Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Over 40 honorary degrees recognized Rogers as a trailblazer, a dedicated professional, determined to raise the bar for children’s television programming. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999.
Revolutions are sometimes fought at glacier-like speed, with weapons such as education, changing opinions and perceptions one person at time. Our hero is no longer with us to lead the charge, so, is the battle over? Is there still a need for someone like Fred Rogers? As long as money, or ratings, or stardom are considered more worthwhile than the education and future of our children, Mister Rogers will need others to take up his cause, to defend the interests of those who can’t speak of their own needs and fight their own battles. The revolution isn’t lost, neither is it over.
Fred Rogers was a family man. He and his wife, Sara Joanne raised two sons, James and John. Fred never drank or smoked, and he was a vegetarian because he couldn’t stand the thought of eating something that had a mother. He was a singer, songwriter, puppeteer dedicated to the mission assigned him But he stepped out of Make-Believe on occasion, out of his role as Mister Rogers. One instance was to play a preacher’s part in an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. He hosted documentaries and made guest appearances on Sesame Street. Esquire provides an excellent biography and includes several candid interviews. Fred Rogers was diagnosed with cancer in December, 2002 and died at home on February 27, 2003. He was 74 years young. More than 2700 people attended his memorial service and he is interred in his family’s mausoleum in Latrobe, PA..
Though this may sound like a eulogy for Fred Rogers, it isn’t. It’s an odd birthday gift for someone very dear to me, an anonymous someone I love so much. She also spent part of her childhood in Make-Believe with Mister Rogers and he’s still one of her favorite people. So, happy birthday, my dear. You have been a constant source of moral and spiritual support, many times pulling me back from the edge, listening to my rants, ready with Kleenex and a Coke to steady my nerves. I pray we’ll have many more years to laugh and talk together, discuss spirituality and faith, watch the hostas grow large and bloom. May God continue to guide your steps and cover you with his grace, keeping you in His eternal love.