I don’t remember the first time I saw Mister Rogers. He was just always there. I was one of those lucky kids born right around the time that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (and “Sesame Street”) came into being.
And when my dad would come home from work for lunch at noontime, there was always a battle of wills whether the TV would be tuned to the news or “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Mister Rogers usually won.
I don’t think I realized it at the time, but that man and his show were pretty important to me. Even though I grew up with a great family and around wonderful people, I can’t think of a better representative of the human race than Mister Rogers.
It’s strange though. When you’re a little kid, you just love Mister Rogers unconditionally, mainly because he loves you unconditionally. But then you start to get older, and you’re gradually led to believe that Mister Rogers is goofy, weird, a simpleton. It becomes common, even expected, to see him as nothing but the butt of jokes, with his soft voice singing as he changes his shoes and puts on his home sweater. Like everyone else, I laughed when Eddie Murphy imitated him in the early 80s on “Saturday Night Live” in “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.” It was funny.
You spend years not even thinking about Mister Rogers, and when you do, you just consider him to be naive and only meant for little kids. That is, until you get older, and slowly you come full circle. You reflect on the man and realize that he was never naive or simple. He was never meant just for kids. Oh sure, kids were his television audience, but his message was always intended for everyone. Be kind. Like others just the way they are. Be patient and understanding.
So now you’re older. Your back hurts. You don’t have the energy you once did. You’ve got less hair, and what you do have is becoming increasingly gray. But hopefully, you’re also somewhat wiser. And if you do think of Mister Rogers from time to time, you just think about what a wonderful man he was. And you love him unconditionally again.
A fresh spotlight was shone on Mister Rogers again last year when the Tom Hanks movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood came out. As usual, Hanks was fantastic (I think Jim Parsons would have been great in that role too). But nothing and nobody can really do the real Mister Rogers complete justice. The man just had a way about him that made you feel everything was going to be okay. Everybody loved him.
Recently, I came across this video, where an Irish girl decides to watch Mister Rogers for the first time. I like this video because it’s a pretty good overview of Mister Rogers without having to invest in watching an 8-hour Ken Burns documentary about him. (Although I would love to watch that too!) I also like the video because you can see the effect Mister Rogers still has on a young adult, halfway around the world, almost 20 years after his death.
Again, the man’s message wasn’t just for kids. It was for everyone. Kindness isn’t a trait that only children should learn. Adults should too. Unfortunately, we allow ourselves to unlearn it.
In 1969, Mister Rogers appeared before Congress to fight for funds for PBS. And he was brilliant! Watch how he speaks to the committee. It’s the same voice and manner that you always saw on his show, when he was speaking to kids. That’s because he wasn’t an act. He was always being himself. It’s just that people thought he was being overly gentle for the sake of children. The man was gentle with everyone, even when he was fighting for a righteous cause. If I had been sitting there, I would have probably been speaking loudly, sarcastically, aggressively out of my usual frustration with the politicians. But he doesn’t do that at all. And he wins them over.
The most striking thing to me in this testimony is when Mister Rogers recites the lyrics to one of the songs that he wrote for his show. As an adult, see if you can relate to these words…
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 Can stop, stop, stop anytime 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 lady And a boy can be someday a man
Okay, so most of us adults might not stop to pound clay, or round up a bunch of friends for tag. Then again, maybe some do. But don’t the words of this song apply to adults as much as they do children? What if most people in the world internalized that song and embraced the meaning and actually put them into words? It would be a much better world, and I would be a much better man.
I think it’s fitting to end by looking at the acceptance speech that Mister Rogers gave when he won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmy’s in 1997. To me, this short clip really shows the true nature of this great man. There’s no self-congratulations, or ego, or wasted time. He uses the moment to turn the attention to others, recognize the impact they’ve had, and bring the audience to tears.
That’s not a naive, weird, simple, out-of-his-element kind of man.
That’s a man.